Monday, 22 February 2010
Security threat levels, police responses and public perceptions.
A post I read a few days ago over on Stressedoutcop's blog got me thinking about the wider issues raised by his observations on dealing with the scene of a potential threat to the safety of the public. It comes in the wake of several other bloggers, including Crime Analyst, who have raised the issue of the utter paucity of available police resources to respond to the unexpected, although not necessarily a terrorist incident. Stressedout's post reminded me of one of my first bloggings, which was about a Sunday afternoon's duty being totally transformed, in a blink, from the excited buzz of Speakers Corner, Hyde Park, into one of mass death and the destruction of an airliner near Heathrow airport. My post focussed not on the scene, because I never actually arrived, but on the reaction of the great British public who prevented my unit from getting to it, inadvertently sparing us the horror of having to become temporary mortuary attendants but in so doing, adding to the problems of the emergency services at and near the scene. (Read it here if you want to) My entire police service was overshadowed by Irish Republican terrorism. In my early years in London there wasn't a week that passed when I was not either involved in some sort of bomb threat or security scare, or one that I'd heard of on a neighbouring division, via my personal radio or in another police force via the news media. In one week there were at least 5 explosions and a drive-by machine gun attack on or near my central London Division. I heard many an IRA bomb blast echoing across the rooftops of the West End and was among the first at at the scene of two, the images of which will never leave me. Even in my last decade, I was closely involved with operations that were mounted to protect military personnel at public events or on covert armed CT operations to try and protect prominent people or capture those who were intent on killing them. Since I moved on to other things further from the sharp end, other terrorist organisations and acronyms have entered the current vernacular and although less frequent than the dark days of PIRA mainland bomb attacks, the next generation, this generation, has been horrified by even greater acts of mass murder and destruction on an international scale, although one could argue that the citizens of Northern Ireland have endured a similar ordeal, spread over decades, which shifted the way they conducted their everyday lives. The one thing that I always feared, as a senior officer expected to assume command at the scene of such an incident, was having the resources available to do the essentials and having the clarity of thought and resolutness to get it all done and not let anyone down. As a Pc in London, when we had a confirmed `coded` bomb threat the initial 15 minutes were utterly nerve shredding, especially as we were rarely given a precise location by the informant, a deliberate tactic to heighten panic - (thats why its called terrorism). Being in central London we had lots of divisions concentrated in a small area and so always seemed to manage to get the resources we needed, at least from my perspective, although on every occasion it was very much on a `wing and a prayer`. Smaller forces have fewer officers per square mile and later in my career as a `county mountie` attending similar incidents, I really felt the difference of being away from The `Met`, particularly when comparing the practical experience of the county force who didn't have as much practice. Until, that is, they copped a real bomb, then it all stepped up a gear. Which brings me back to Stressedoutcops post. He said something that showed just how aware he really is to the situations he envisaged in his post and it was this, "I don't know how I'd react but hope I could detach myself from trying to be hands on and put in place the building blocks needed". Spot on. The blocks of building a structure of `contol` at a major incident, is down to the first officers at the scene. Having grasped the seriousness of the situation, the toughest thing is to realise that they have to remain detached from `alligator fighting` and think `swamp drainage`. Manuals are written on this sort of thing, but in short it means that the first officers must fight the urge to dive in to something which although appearing important in the initial moments, like slapping a bandage on a bleeding citizens head wound, have to be delegated. A major incident, such as the substantial and credible threat of a bomb going off, means that bigger things have to be considered like where to put the main RV point, ambulance and fire service RVP's, where the best access and egress points are to ensure your routes in and out won't become quickly clogged by emergency vehicles, good comms reception and a whole raft of other considerations that any police officer reading this will be well aware of - if their force has allocated the time to train it. In the real world the initial phase of such incidents are, as Stressedout` stated, totally chaotic and you are unlikely to find even a handful of Pc's required to do the work that a dozen would struggle with. Cordoned off areas by the use of the magic tape, the removal of the public from danger, the preservation of evidence, and the creation of good access points for specialist officers from all services are just 4 important tasks from a list that can go on for pages. It doesn't make exciting TV news footage but it is what the job will ultimately stand or fall by When the bomb threats and explosions became a regular feature of my working life, we became quite good at it, and so did the public. In the beginning, a cordoned off street or two would bring the problems and antics that Stressedout wrote of, with Joe and Josephine Public responding with gripes, complaints, piss taking and occasionally downright obstruction of our duties. Once the bombs started to go off, the glass started to fly and the flesh and limbs started to get blown off, the public (and the police) started to get the message. The sort of police training required to manage the first 30 minutes of a serious incident such as described herein and by Stressedout` happens, typically, once every 5 years, in a classroom, for perhaps an hour or two. Take a look at the faces of these innocent people. They are now just statistics and we should all remind ourselves that they were once living, loving and loved. It has been relatively quiet of late, so what has been happening in the lull? The debate on the various police blogs about the diminishing size of police response teams at police stations across the UK highlight their struggle to answer the usual influx of calls, let alone incidents that require the rapid build-up of resources that a major incident demands. And don't be fooled by the use of the term `Major` either. Around 15 simultaneous, serious casualties will pretty much close a typical hospital's A&E department. And as for Stressedout's original, valid point about the questionable value of the `Security Threat Level` and of the concurring derisory comments this matrix attracted, I think that it would be far better if this month's Home Secretary issued some sort of expectation of response from members of the public, so that they know how to react when confronted by a hastily erected police cordon and how, by failing to adhere to it or follow instructions issued at the scene thereof, they could actually be hindering the emergency services, putting themselves and others at risk and, if they breach said cordon they could be breaking the law. This would be far more useful than a nebulous soundbite that educates and informs no one but scares tens of thousands. Once upon a time, Londoners were amongst the most `bomb savvy` people in the western world (outside of Northern Ireland of course, whose remarkable people are in a different league altogether). I do hope it doesn't take more people being blown apart before the message gets across again.