It’s no secret that the global community is facing an increased threat from terrorists.  High profile terror attacks in Paris, London, Nice and Manchester have heightened fears but equally shone a spotlight onto the communication methods used by emergency personnel during incidents.

Managing the unpredictable is a key focus of terrorist training but communication during an event is still largely completed by traditional radio and pen to paper recording at a command post.  This can, in certain situations, become an overwhelmed method of communication during large-scale operations involving multiple agencies.

Some of the criticism levied against emergency services in the aftermath of the Manchester bombing in the official Kerslake report stemmed from communication and confusion when following strict protocols.  As one of the most catastrophic UK terrorist incidents of the last few years, the report offers a number of findings that offer room for improvement when dealing with multi-agency, emergency incidents.

There are two key findings from the report that are particularly relevant for future learning:

Poor Communication led to Delays by Emergency Services

The report highlighted that as the fire service could not communicate directly with the police duty inspector (whose phone was in constant use) the emerging situation was not dealt with accordingly and the fire service prepared for an escalating firearms attack.  In this situation, national guidance suggests that fire crew personnel stay 500m away from any zone of danger. 

The incident was declared by the police duty inspector as Operation Plato (code name for an incident where automatic firearms will be fired indiscriminately) but the fire service and ambulance service were not informed or updated as to the status of the operation meaning the fire service did not arrive at the scene for nearly two hours. 

The official recommendation of the report was to review protocols, identifying ways to reduce the load placed on the police duty officer during major incidents.  Suggestions included a dedicated incident management support team to be available immediately. 

 Hot, Warm and Cold Zones

Under the rules of Operation Plato, only emergency responders suitably trained and equipped with firearms can enter the ‘hot zone’ of an incident if terrorist activity is deemed ongoing.  In the case of the Manchester bombing, the police duty officer made the crucial decision to allow emergency responders to enter the hot zone and treat victims – believing the alternative to be ‘unconscionable’ despite the perceived danger to life for emergency teams. 

The Kerslake report recognised the positive outcome of this key decision, suggesting that sticking rigidly to Operation Plato protocol would have led to emergency responders relying too heavily on written instructions and not their own judgement and training. 

One of the key findings from the Kerslake report was the level of confusion between different emergency responders as to the nature of the incident and the protocols to follow.  Communication breakdowns contributed to this, suggesting that the police duty inspector required a support team during major incidents to maintain the flow of information between different agencies.

The profile of an MTFA is not too dissimilar to natural disaster recovery operations wherein an uncontrollable force is threatening public safety.  A central command is set up to coordinate multiple agencies involved in the incident and liaise with the commanders from each emergency service.  Although not situation specific, communication is largely radio-based with no real-time data showing the locations of individuals or the safe zones and boundary areas of the incident.

Lets approach it from a different angle.  If an active shooter enters a town centre, security services need to ensure the safety of other emergency personnel and the public by clearing an area – or zone – as safe to enter.  This is currently done via pen, paper and radio through central command and commanders feeding information.  In the case of the Manchester bombing, with no clear alternative and lives at stake – emergency teams were cleared to enter the perceived ‘hot zone’ despite no initial support from firearms teams.

Succorfish have identified a strong need for more sophisticated equipment to speed up secure search efforts but also to aid coordination and tracking between different emergency services.  Such technology could supply real time data not only of the location of personnel, but also at the touch of a button clearly mark zones as clear to enter using data sent to a live map managed by central command.

The live map element is what Succorfish now has in development.  This will support tried and tested tracking equipment to give all emergency services involved in terrorist incidents or natural disaster relief efforts the ability to track and deploy based on real time data.

The CommandX devices are situation ready and handed out on site during an incident with a clip and go approach.  The live map is generated with information and updates from individuals creating an overview of the whereabouts of all emergency services.  Hot and cold zones can be established with live map creation to help central command establish control over the situation and understand where teams are active within set boundaries.  Any personnel wearing the device can then be checked-in and checked-out of the incident area to ensure the safety and security of all attending agencies for full accountability.

Bluetooth is key as the character of a terrorist incident or natural disaster often results in wifi being knocked out and phone capability reduced.  Bluetooth tracking is then relayed via a specially developed CommandX app providing information on the whereabouts of all teams at any one time.  The ability to communicate on the whereabouts of emergency teams and respond to an incident is therefore driven not only by radio communication, but visual, real-time data supporting and powering key decisions with potential major consequences on the incident outcome.

Think of the power of this device in the context of the Manchester bombing.  The ability to track all responders using live maps of an incident area.  Communication is supported with genuine first-hand information and led by real-time data from individuals attending the emerging situation.

The use of this technology as a central command tool is, at this stage, limitless.  The graphical user interface is both clear and easy to use and data gathered can be used to inform future training.  The clarity given to a central command post has the ability to not only save lives but provide an element of control in an unmanageable situation.

Succorfish is now working in collaboration with emergency services to establish the varying criteria required of the device for launch.  We are taking all suggestions into account with field trials currently underway with key personnel.

Command X is coming and communications for emergency responders will never be the same.