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Assessing the All Hazards Summer

Commentary, 13 September 2007
Whilst summer seems to have come and gone without any real recourse to its default position of hot weather and sunshine, the summer of 2007 will always be remembered as a summer of hazards, a summer of loss.

Whilst summer seems to have come and gone without any real recourse to its default position of hot weather and sunshine, the summer of 2007 will always be remembered as a summer of hazards, a summer of loss. From the bouts of flooding, the terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow, and the Foot and Mouth outbreak in Surrey, recent months have shown the extent of the all-hazards approach required in civil contingencies and the diversity of disruptive challenge that the UK’s resilience has to contend with.

These different crises have highlighted a number of issues that will inform future resilience policy and planning. Firstly, resilience remains a continuous dialogue with an uncertain future which plays against the complex interdependence of modern societies. For any liberal democracy with untold calls on resources from a demanding electorate, risk management remains the only strategically pragmatic approach to resilience that can be adopted by government, allowing probability and consequence to be credibly balanced. This strategy has been embraced by the UK government and is reflected in the operation of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS), positioned within the Cabinet Office, which undertakes a continual national risk assessment and horizon scanning process. This function is supported by the Lead Government Department (LGD) principle, which assigns different crises to different agencies and departments depending on their expertise and capabilities.

Shortly before the recent floods, the Environment Agency, the lead on all flood defence and response, was applauded by the National Audit Office for employing the risk management approach but was criticised for its patchy and inconsistent application in certain areas[1].  Whether these criticisms will resonate with the flood review that is currently underway remains to be seen but it is clear that some aspects of planning or resource allocation were ineffective. For example, responding to the excessive surface water in the recent floods was unexpected but the fluvial breaches should have been accounted for as part of the ongoing risk management programme. This requirement to reconsider the full scope of risk assessment will necessarily require a renewed engagement with the LGD principle and the capacity to respond to multiple crises, the support the LGD receives from the Civil Contingencies Secretariat and wider government community, and perhaps most importantly, a recognition that not only does risk need managing, but the expectations of the public also have to be managed. This suggests that greater effort is required by government with respect to public communication or the “informing and warning” process referred to in the Civil Contingencies Act. In this regard the call by Sir Michael Pitt, chair of the government's summer’s floods review[2],  for those affected to share their experiences may constitute a small step in the right direction to better engagement with the public on matters pertaining to resilience.

Secondly, by its very nature risk management accepts levels of unfettered vulnerability, however it fails to be effective when the articulated risks are incoherently or insufficiently addressed, or there is a failure to consider the wider unintended consequences of actions. The insurance industry may characterise buildings on flood plains as ‘sacrificial land’ that is uninsurable but the demand for additional housing struggles for reconciliation with this appraisal or the government’s ambition. Risk management in terms of resilience has to be coherent, comprehensive and compassionate whether it is dealing with farmers losing livestock (and livelihoods), communities rebounding from floods, or survivors of terrorist attacks demanding answers. Furthermore, in this respect the role and responsibility of the media should not be obscured as its ‘crisis caravan’ lurches from one drama to another leaving a trail of half finished stories and yesterday’s news.
 
Finally, resilience has to be seen in its stark entirety. When taken from the perspective of risk as function of threat and vulnerability it is all too easy to look at the “front end” of contingency, imagining the possible and, in the long shadow of September 11, beyond. In this sense we become focussed on what could happen; through assessment, planning and preparation, through training and simulation of emergency response, in command and control interoperability, and inter-agency cooperation we patrol the limits of preparation and response. But resilience cannot be seen in the isolation of “the event”. There is a continuum at play that leads from preparation to response to recovery. As the Civil Contingencies draft bill noted it is indeed a cycle at the heart of resilience: anticipation, prevention, preparation, response and recovery[3].  In translation into implementation, this cycle has been augmented with assessment but the emphasis remains clear. It is not enough simply to horizon scan, risk assess, prepare and respond: recovery is as much the essence of resilience as anything and should not be short changed or short sighted.

In the reaction to the floods it has become clear that recovery strategy requires a great deal more attention. Indeed, policy and doctrine needs to be engaged with at the very highest levels in order to facilitate the best use of resources and expertise during any recovery phase. And of course recovery has to encompass preparation for the next crisis based upon experience and informed expectation; in many ways the choice becomes one of a vicious or virtuous circle.

The summer displayed the full value and flaws of the UK’s resilience preparation, response and recovery. From luck to pluck, tragedy to farce, the diverse crises the UK experienced exposed the continuing need to review and revise our resilience strategies and tactics. Many of the issues raised above will be explored during RUSI’s forthcoming annual resilience conference, “UK Resilience: Delivering Resilience”: as we move from a summer of loss, we look forward to an autumn of hope.

Neil Ellis
Head of Resilience, Homeland Security and Resilience Department
12 September 2007

The view expressed above are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI

[1]See Neil Ellis, UK Floods: Changing Attitudes, (RUSI Analysis, June 2007); See also National Audit Office, Environment Agency: Building and maintaining river and coastal flood defences in England, (The Stationery Office, London, 15 June 2007)
[2]http://www.ukresilience.info/news/flooding_review.aspx Accessed 4 September 2007
[3]See Clive Walker and James Broderick, The Civil Contingencies Act 2004: Risk, Resilience, and the Law in the United Kingdom, Oxford University Press (2006), P24

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