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Emergency and Crisis Management in the United Kingdom: Disasters Experienced, Lessons Learned, and Recommendations for the Future

Naim Kapucu, Ph.D.1


The emergency management system of the United Kingdom (UK) has faced significant reforms and changes since World War II with the primary aim of decreasing human casualties. The historical data over the last decades demonstrates the increasing frequency and threat of major disasters such as natural, biological, social, technological, manmade, chemical, or environmental incidents affecting the UK. The possibility of facing threats and devastating consequences after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the experience of 2005 London bombings raise the question about the readiness of the UK to effectively deal with large disasters and mass casualties.

This paper explores hazards and vulnerability in the United Kingdom. It reviews the history of disasters affecting UK and the process of development of emergency management policy in the country. The paper also describes the country’s current structure of emergency management system and discusses future disaster challenges.

Hazards Affecting UK

The United Kingdom is a unitary state consisting of four countries – England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. It is governed by parliamentary system, which is located at the capital, London. It is an island country surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the North Sea, the English Channel and the Irish Sea. The country is linked to France by the Channel Tunnel through its largest island. The total area of the UK is 244,820 square kilometers (94,526 square mile). It has a temperate climate with abundant rainfall. Eastern parts of the country are relatively drier. Atlantic currents, which are warmed by Gulf Stream, bring mild and wet winters.

The history of different types of disasters in the UK includes a wide variety of incidents ranging from natural hazards and the threat of manmade disasters. Due to its geographical location, climate warming, rainfall intensity and sea level rise, it is almost impossible – technically and economically – to prevent all consequences from natural disasters such as major flooding, severe storms and gales, persistent low temperatures, heavy snow, heat waves, drought, fires and other severe weather incidents in the UK. The flood events of 2007 alone caused damage to more than 55,000 properties, took the life of 13 people, left 350,000 people without water supply, affected 7,300 businesses and caused billions of spending by central government (Pitt 2008). The risk of flood events is not new and has historically been characteristic for the UK. Today more than 5 million people live in risk areas in England and Wales, which creates additional concerns for central government to respond. The coastline regions are usually affected by sea surges, high tides, and gale force winds.

Severe storms and winds can affect most of the country for at least 6 hours at a time. Most inland areas and regions experience storms with speed of 55 mph and gusts which exceed 85 mph. In spite of relatively small impacts, heat waves and droughts are also characteristic challenges for UK. The impact of global warming also causes indirect effects on human health, and increases the possibility of some natural disasters as floods, rising of sea levels, etc. Due to severe heat, the UK government takes serious steps to prevent elderly, young, and other vulnerable population casualties through public awareness and education.

In addition to natural disasters, transportation accidents have been given increased attention over time. There have been numerous catastrophic transportation accidents over the last decades. The frequency of air crash accidents, sea transportation fatalities and rail road incidents have put their stigma on the UK disaster management history. Severe weather conditions and other causes took lives of many people and caused property damage. Some of examples for transportation incidents and casualties are the Pleasure Boat incident of 1988 which took 56 lives, a rail crash of 1988 which took 34 lives, and an air crash of 1989 which killed 29 people and injured 70 more (Parker & Handmer 1992).

Riots, protests and similar campaigns have also been considered as incidents with significant impact and damages over the last decades. Examples are riots of 1985 and fuel blockade crisis of 2000, which caused number of deaths, property damage, casualties, unpopularity and disruption of government functions.

Massive fires in 1985 and 1987, the oil pollution of 1989, an oil rig explosion of 1987, water supply pollution problems in 1988, a crowd crush incident of 1989, and the recent threat of avian influenza (Parker & Handmer 1992) provide the basic perception about a wide range of disasters, which have a big impact on government and citizens in this nation. The UK government faces challenges of variety of emergency situations that require effective response covering an all-hazards emphasis.

In addition to discussed disasters and crises, terrorism plays an important role in the disaster environment of the United Kingdom. The UK previously was a victim of terrorist incidents like: 1) the attacks of 1987 – in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland – where 11 people died and 50 were injured; 2) the bombing of 1988 – Omagh, Northern Ireland – where 8 people died and 21 were injured; and 3) the terrorist bombing of aircraft - Lockerbie, Scotland – where 281 people died (Parker & Handmer 1992). However, since the 9/11 attacks in the United States and London Bombing of 2005, the central government of the UK had to reconsider effectiveness and capacity of its emergency management response and the potential risk and aftermath of terrorist attacks.

Vulnerability in the UK

As can be seen, the UK is vulnerable to many natural events. Global warming, magnitude and frequency of extreme weather events, and climate change scenarios have severe effects on agricultural prosperity. Severe wind storms, late spring frost, and weather conditions have a direct impact on crops production. Every year UK faces the problems concerning yield, quality and environment for representative crops due to weather patterns (DEFRA 2009).

Being an island country and affected by global climate change, the UK is a target and destination point of severe storms and winds which cause severe damages to property. Severe windstorms can result in direct and indirect damages to buildings, vehicles, infrastructure, businesses, and human life. The two storms of 1987 alone resulted in insured property losses which exceeded £1.4 billion and £2.1 billion respectively. Geographical location, poor maintenance and repair, inappropriate design, lack of building codes, and age of the buildings and infrastructure make the resistance of property more vulnerable to the impact of severe storms. Continuous winds cause damage especially to the roofs of the properties which were not designed effectively to withstand severe and mild storms. The tendency of deterioration of future weather conditions will make it more challenging for the United Kingdom to deal with the impact of storm winds in the future (Association of British Insurers 2003).

The frequency of flood events in some regions increases the exposure of physical and social vulnerability. With the increase in the intensity of natural disasters (especially floods) over the last decades, people living in dangerous flood zones become an easy target for natural disasters. The inefficiency of local governments’ capacity also makes it relatively hard to cope with the impact and aftermath of natural disasters (Brooks 2003; Coninx & Bacus 2007). More than five million people and two million properties are considered to be located in a flood risk zone. Deprived population and lower social classes are the ones who reside in these areas that are considered to be less aware of flood risks. The lack of public education about the threat of flooding risk and reluctance of accepting it makes the lower social population, economically and socially, two or three times more vulnerable than the higher class population (Burningham, Fielding, & Thrush 2008).

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks highlighted the vulnerability of critical infrastructure to terrorist attacks around the world. Since this catastrophic incident, the government of the UK has focused on security of critical infrastructure from manmade attacks. For instance, the data of 2002 provides information that UK is operating more than 31 Nuclear Power Reactors. Therefore, the risk that nuclear reactors could be attacked is rising. Successful terrorist attacks could affect not only the population, but the surrounding environment. The release of radioactive materials into air and water would have a long term negative side effects on environment, which would make these places uninhabitable for decades, destroy the nature of surrounding sea life, and impact the economy for future generations. The UK Home Office and Civil Contingencies Secretariat has therefore underscored the importance of physical protection of Nuclear Power Plants against future possibility of terrorist attacks and tightened security standards (Moss 2002).

The History of Disasters

Parker & Handmer (1992) provide several recent examples of important disaster cases from UK history:

  • Ferry sinking in European Gateway in December 1982. 6 lives lost.

  • Explosion in water treatment works in May 1984 at Abbeystead, Lancashire. 17 died and many others injured.

  • Fire of May 1985 at Bradford City football ground, Yokshire. 56 people died and many were injured.

  • Aircraft fire occurred during take-off in August 1985. 55 people died.

  • Riots of 1985s. 1) In Handsworth, Birmingham, 72 died and 137 injured. 2) In Brixton, London, over 200 arrested, and property was damaged. 3) In Brixton, London, over 50 casualties. 4) In Broadwater Farm, Tottenham, over 250 injured, 1 died, and property was damaged.

  • Radiation release from the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in April 1986 affected the UK.

  • Storm with hurricane-force winds in October 1987 sweep Britain following failure of Meteorological Office to forecast the storm accurately. Over 20 people are killed and a huge insurance payout resulted from damages.

  • Fire of November 1987 in King’s Cross underground station, London. 30 people died, and over 50 others were injured.

  • Terrorist bombing of November 1987 in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. 11 died and over 50 injured.

  • Oil rig explosion of the Piper Alpha in the North Sea occurs in July 1988. 167 people died as a result.

  • Water supply contamination at the Lowermoore water treatment plant near Camelford in July 1988. Aluminum sulphate was inadvertently put in the wrong tank. 20,000 people affected with a range of short-and possibly long-term health effects.

  • Terrorist bombing of August 1988 in Omagh in Northern Ireland. 8 died and 21 injured.

  • Rail crash of December 1988. Three trains collided near Clapham railway station in London. 34 people died and many were injured.

  • Terrorist bombing of aircraft December 1988. Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. The incident killed 270 passengers, crew and 11 people on the ground.

  • Air crash of January 1989. Aircraft crashes onto M1 motorway near Kegworth in Leicestershire. 39 people died at the scene and 70 were injured.

  • Crowd crush of April 1989 at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, Yorkshire. 95 people died and 400 were injured.

  • Pleasure boat incident of August 1989. The Marchioness sank in the river Thames in London after colliding with another vessel. 56 people died.

  • Oil pollution of August 1989. Shell oil pipeline on Merseyside leaks, causing major uncontrolled 156 tons of crude oil to spill into Mersey estuary.

  • Storm of February 1990. Hurricane force winds sweep Britain, on this occasion accurately forecasted by the Meteorological Office. Over 40 people killed and massive damage.

  • Flood event of January/February 1990 in Thames valley, especially in Maidenhead. Over 200 properties seriously flooded for over one week. Large property damage results.

  • Flood event of February 1990. A sea wall at Towyn, North Wales, is breached by high tide and storm surge. In spite of late warning, 6,500 people were evacuated. Large amounts of property were damaged.

  • Flood events occurred in October/November of 2000. UK faced two weeks of severe flooding. Estimated total damage to homes and businesses was £500 million. It was the most widespread and severe flooding since 1947. More than 8000 properties were significantly damaged and destroyed. Transportation systems in northeastern and southern England, North Wales, and Midlands were paralyzed. The floods swept major roads, blocked primary routes and rail services. The cleanup process took months (Risk Management Solutions 2000).

  • UK Fuel Blockade Crisis occurred in 2000. A series of protests were held in the UK due to rising cost of petrol and diesel. The main protestors were drivers and farmers. A number of blockades of oil facilities caused disruption of petroleum supply and caused negative effects for public authorities causing reduction in government popularity. The primary concern and request of protestors was to ensure reduction in fuel duty rate on petrol and diesel (which the government refused to enact). Even though the protests did not have a major negative impact, they caused disruption of government’s functions.

  • London Bombings of July of 2005. A series of suicide bomb attacks on London's public transport system during the rush hour. 52 people were killed, and more than 700 were injured.

  • Avian influenza of April 2006. Government took immediate preventive actions and warned about the risk of H5 and H7 viruses. Secretary of State established control and monitoring areas in parks, zoos, circuses, disease outbreak points, banks and shores, wild lands, etc. The agriculture, food industry, and economy were severely affected. Few human casualties were detected.

  • Flood Events of 2007. More than 55,000 properties were flooded. 7000 people were rescued, 13 people died. Half a million people were left without mains of water and electricity. Floods caused billions of £ British pounds damage which central government should pay.

The short list of disasters and incidents, provided above, demonstrates the diversity, scale and complexity of events and challenges confronting the UK. It gives basic understanding and useful lessons that should be taken into consideration by emergency managers, officials and government authorities. Lessons drawn from natural disasters and change in global climate demonstrates certain hard future challenges for the UK. At the same time with social, biological and technological disasters increasing frequency and path of different natural disasters, due to climate change, should be one of the main focuses in sustaining effective emergency management. Changes, in the emergency management structure of UK, have taken place since the occurrence of some incidents with big aftermath and calamity. Deprived and middle income population sits in the center of attention which needs collective government consideration. While it is impossible to prevent certain circumstances of natural emergency situations central government focuses more on complacency issues and well developed resilient communities.

London bombing of 2005 opened a new focus center for UK government. Even though terrorism is not a very new challenge for UK it requires an effective system with the collaborative efforts of local and central governments to fight against it. Vulnerability of critical infrastructure of UK made decision makers and government officials to reconsider effectiveness of current emergency management system.

Disaster Policy

The evolution of emergency management of the UK took its first steps after World War II. The growing risk of nuclear attack led to the Civil Defense Act of 1948, which aimed to decrease the possibility of civilian casualties during the Cold War. The central government felt confident in letting local agencies deal with and manage possible emergencies. Even though local organizations and agencies were flexible in requesting regional and national resources through appropriate lead government departments, the central government did not put mandatory requirements for them to cooperate and coordinate local efforts. By the end of Cold War the Civil Defense in Peacetime Act of 1986 legislated the existing system and recognized central and local government responsibility approach. There were numerous cases, such as civil disasters, which led to the review of the existing emergency management system in 1989 and 1991. However, no significant change was made by that time. The Millennium Bug experience, which was followed by flood events, and the UK Fuel Blockade crisis of 2000 raised the question about complexity and lack of capacity of structure for needed information provision, action, and management of disasters at local level. This led UK to adjust its focus and review the emergency management system which was implemented through Home Office. The review process of emergency management system included not only a response at local level, but also established a central focus and framework for responding and preparing for emergencies at national, regional, and local levels. Therefore, in July of 2001 Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS), within Cabinet Office was established, and lead responsibilities were transferred to this organization (O’Brien & Read 2005).

The aftermath of 9/11 terrorist attacks and increasing threat of manmade disasters brought question about the readiness and sufficiency of the UK government emergency management structure with the intent of providing effective civil protection. The concern of terrorism and establishment of effective disaster response framework led to structural change and reformation (O’Brien & Read 2005). The Civil Contingencies Act (CCA) of 2004 introduced a single framework for civil protection in UK and brought new changes to the table such as replacing and updating former Civil Defense and Emergency Power legislations. The CCA is now composed of two parts. Part 1 defines regulations, guidance, clear set of goals, and responsibilities for all involved organizations at the local level. The local responders are divided into different sections and categories based on their specific duties and roles. Part 2 updates Emergency Power Act of 1920 and focuses on most serious emergencies and future risk profile (Cabinet Office 2009a; Office of Public Sector Information 2004). The core changes that were brought by the establishment of CCA can be described as: defining the term emergency; identifying the clear boundaries, roles, and responsibilities of all involved organizations and parties in depth; exploring new duties of local and governmental agencies; replacing outdated system of emergency powers; and, in general, giving UK government ranging powers in an emergency (O’Brien & Read 2005).

Organization of Emergency Management

An emergency, as defined in CCA, “is a situation or series of events that threatens or causes serious damage to human welfare, the environment or security in the United Kingdom” (Cabinet Office 2005: 1). The data and historical path of emergencies proves one more time that the frequency of disasters is continuously increasing in the UK. Climate change, uncertainty of weather, and rising sea levels – due to the impact of high temperature – are some of the big threats for vulnerable society. Also, the potential future threat of terrorism, drugs, continuously changing demographics, novel technologies, and social problems creates unpredictability in establishing more sustainable and resilient society. Therefore, civil protection and emergency response and management system of UK has gone through massive changes and reforms. Nevertheless, the overall structure of disaster management has generally remained the same with the central government fulfilling the role of coordinator and providing guidance, while local agencies and governments deal with and respond to disasters (O’Brien & Read 2005).

The structure of emergency management in UK is decentralized. Most emergencies and incidents, based on scale or complexity, are handled at local level with no involvement of Central Government (Civil Contingencies Secretariat 2009a). Local agencies are always the first responders and the ones who carry the burden of emergency management. In most cases the police are considered one of the leading responding actors in local disasters. When police are given the task of responding to disasters at the local level, the Police Gold Commander is appointed by the local Chief Officer with the primary mission of managing the response. The Police Gold Commander is usually chaired by Strategic Coordination Group (SCG) which comprises senior representatives and executive authority from local organizations. The SCG normally coordinates its activities with COBR, if activated, through Government Liaison Officer (GLO). However, in different disaster cases as animal disease outbreak, if local police are not the prime responding agency, the management of disasters is performed through local offices of the lead governments with the support from appropriate Government Offices (Cabinet Office 2005). If the impact of the emergencies is within the boundaries or capabilities of local government, appropriate local emergency services and authorities are being activated to take control of the situation. However, if the incidents and emergencies are of more consequential impact and casualties, the support, involvement and coordination of Central Government becomes necessary and vital (Civil Contingencies Secretariat 2009a). The coordination and response of Central Government, through appropriate Lead Government Department (LGD), is provided when the impact degree, scale and complexity of disasters is relatively hard to manage. By the involvement of Central Government, the COBR is being activated to support coordination and decision making of LGDs (Cabinet Office 2005). The LGD or Developed Administration department is being designated, by the Central Government, for overall management and response to the incidents (Civil Contingencies Secretariat 2009a).

  • Emergency Response and Recovery – management and coordination of local operations: Emergencies and disasters are not sole problem of one agency or organization. On the contrary, it requires involvement and collaborative effort of large number of agencies. The management of local multi-agency response and recovery, from emergencies, is done through established national framework. This framework ensures that all responding agencies know and understand their roles and responsibilities in response and recovery actions. The framework of management of response and recovery comprises three tiers/levels which differ from each other based on their functions rather than rank, grade, or status (Cabinet Office 2009d). These three tiers can be described as:

Bronze level – operational level. “Bronze is the level at which the management of immediate “hands-on” work is undertaken at the site(s) of the emergency or other affected areas” (Cabinet Office 2009e: 22; Cabinet Office 2009d: 1). Responders and agencies on the scene must act together and coordinate with all other agencies in order to sustain integrated effort. Bronze level responders will take immediate steps and provide possible support within their area of responsibility and in specific tasks (Cabinet Office 2009e).

Silver level – tactical level. In order to achieve maximum effectiveness and efficiency Silver Level ensures that actions taken by bronze level are coordinated and integrated. In an incident situation silver commanders form incident command point located close to scene (Cabinet Office 2009d).

Gold level – strategic level. The Strategic Coordinating Group (SCG) is being formed that brings together golden commanders from appropriate organizations and agencies. Once they come together they establish framework and policy within which silver will work. Usually the police agency is leading body which chairs SCG. However, based on type and scale of disasters other agencies may take the lead (Cabinet Office 2009e).

Figure 1 depicts gold tier/level response and recovery functions, interagency command structure, and basic picture of national coordination system.

Figure 1: Interagency command - National Crisis Management and Coordination

Source: Arbuthnot 2005.

COBR/COBRA – Cabinet Office Briefing Room; CSS – Civil Contingencies Secretariat; SCC – Strategic Coordination Centre; SCG – Strategic Coordination Group; PNICC – Police National Information and Coordination Center; JIG – Joint Intelligence Group; JHAC – Joint Health Advisory Cell; MoD – Ministry of Defense; and RCCC – Regional Civil Contingencies Committee.

  • Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS): The CCS, which supports Civil Contingencies Committee (CCC) in dealing with terrorism and natural disasters, was established in July 2001, and is located within the Cabinet Office (Civil Contingencies Secretariat 2009b). Since its establishment, it became the lead emergency management organization in UK which functions under Minister of Interior (Sahin, Kapucu, & Unlu 2008). The core objective of CCS is to improve the UK's preparedness and response, and to build resilience to emergencies and disasters through identifying challenges, assessing and managing contingencies, and planning for future risk (Civil Contingencies Secretariat 2009b). The role and functions of CCS, under the leadership of CCC, is not to manage all crises but to “provide the central focus for the cross-departmental and cross-agency commitment, coordination and cooperation” (Cabinet Office 2008: 3), and to enable UK to successfully respond, recover, and deal with disaster challenges (Civil Contingencies Secretariat 2009b). When engaged, the CCS would report and inform appropriate Ministers and senior officials about strategic decisions concerning the emergency (Cabinet Office 2008). In the wide-range disaster events where one single department cannot provide needed response or where designation of right LGD is not clear, CCS becomes responsible for taking immediate action and ensuring promptly that one department is designated as LGD. However, if the incident is a cause of terrorism, the initial phase is led by the Home Office Terrorism and Protection Unit (Cabinet Office 2009b). In an emergency situation with big aftermath and impact, CCS will work with lead departments and:

  1. provide an assessment of immediate needs, and support their provision;

  2. establish possible scenarios up to worst case and plan for scaling up, logistical management and exit;

  3. ensure that the centre and other interested departments are kept informed and are prepared to engage;

  4. help establish structures, rhythms, routines and data flows for managing the response – in particular facilitating augmentation of the department’s resources and public information systems;

  5. connect the department with agencies able to provide specialist advice and information; and

  6. decide whether and when to approach the Chairman to convene a meeting of CCC, thereafter providing ongoing support from the centre (Cabinet Office 2008: 4).

While working and partnering close with lead departments, CCS supports them in preparing plans and integrating them with other departments, enhancing decision making, developing early warning systems, sharing knowledge with other core departments, developing management and professional expertise to maintain plans, testing developed plans, providing continuous improvements in developed plans, etc. (Cabinet Office 2008).

  • Lead Government Departments (LGD): LGDs are designated for different numbers and categories of emergency situations. CCS maintains and updates list of LGDs based on their responsibilities and functions. In an emergency, if there is an ambiguous situation regarding which LGD should be involved and which is appropriate for management and response of the disaster, it becomes the role and judgment of Head of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat to make a decision and appoint the most appropriate LGD for this position (Civil Contingencies Secretariat 2009a).

  • Cabinet Office Briefing Room (COBR): COBR, also referred as COBRA, is dedicated crisis management facility of the UK government, which is activated in the incidents or events of national significance. When the disaster affects big number of businesses and government departments, which requires a collective action, government maintains and activates COBR. Being situated in Whitehall, the COBR meetings are held in special secure rooms where Prime Minister, key authorities, Intelligence Officials, representatives from Ministry of Defense, officials from Department of Defense and Home Office, other senior Ministers, critical officials as Mayor of London and Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and representatives of relevant LGDs come together to make decisions and provide needed effective response and recovery disaster actions. COBR meetings are being held till the emergency situation is considered to be safe. Once the needed authorities come together, COBR identifies issues and proposes solutions and advice in order to respond to the emergency situation. The rooms where COBR meetings are held are provided with all necessary means of communication equipment, with the core intent of providing timely and effective communication with all branches of government. COBR meetings are usually chaired and lead by the Prime Minister or Home Secretary, but it can change based on attribute and scale of the incident (Cabinet Office 2009c).

  • Levels of Emergency Management: In addition to local emergencies or incidents – such as road accidents, small impact flood events, etc., (which are mainly handled by local authorities and first responders as police, fire, health organizations) – the engagement and response provision of UK central government is based on three different levels of emergencies. The specific functions and activation of government of department and ministers are done based on seriousness of disaster. In general, Level 3 is regarded as catastrophic emergency, Level 2 as serious emergency, and Level 1 as significant emergency level (Cabinet Office 2005).

Level 3 – level of catastrophic emergency or disaster: is any disaster that has high widespread impact and requires immediate involvement of central government. An example can be emergency or any disaster with the scale and size of 9/11 terrorist attacks or as Chernobyl emergency situation. Leading responding agencies – COBR/Civil Contingencies Committee (CCC).

Level 2 – level of serious emergency or disaster: is any disaster that has wide and prolonged impact. Any disaster with level 2 requires support and coordination of government and other departments. An example could be major terrorist attack or outbreak of disease. In any disaster with the impact size of level 2 issues are coordinated from COBR by the LGD. The Cabinet Office is responsible for overall disaster management and LGD.

Level 1 – level of significant emergency: is any disaster with small impact which requires narrow focus. Related examples are riots, severe natural disasters, or small impact manmade incident. The support of central government is provided through LGD. Any emergency with level 1 impact does not necessarily require activation of COBR. Developed administrations are also actively responding agencies. The advice of CCS is provided if it is necessary (Cabinet Office 2005; Civil Contingencies Secretariat 2009a).

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