7/7 Inquest: Be Careful of Demanding the Impossible

The current press coverage of the 7/7 Inquest has undermined real progress made by the emergency services since July 2005. We must guard against expecting the impossible of our emergency services and concentrate instead on how they can be maintained amid impending cuts.

By Jennifer Cole , Head of Emergency Management

The majority of the press coverage on the Coroner's Inquests into the London Bombings of 7 July 2005 has leaned towards the negative. A typical focus, for example, has been on the slow emergency response and how some responders held back from entering the tunnels. However, this risks missing two very important points. Firstly, it is far from the case that nothing has changed since 7/7. In the five years since the bombings, there has been intense scrutiny of the procedures and technology in use on that day, both within and between the organisations that responded. While much of the information coming out from the inquest is new to the public domain, it is not new to those agencies directly responsible for responding to the incident. They are well aware there were problems, and they have spent the last five years trying to address them. The transcripts available on the 7 July Inquest website make this clear; the Inquest is hearing the full picture, but what is being reported is far from it. [1]

Secondly, it is important to remember that a thorough understanding of both the circumstances in which the emergency services operate, and just how difficult their jobs can be, is vital if we are to ensure that we are not demanding the impossible: expecting an emergency response that will never be as perfect, immediate and seamless as every victim, and victim's family, would hope it might be. Emergency responders work in extremely difficult and often dangerous circumstances, with equipment that may not be state of the art because of a limited budget. They do not deserve to be demonised by journalists and commentators who do not fully understand what they do, how they do it, or why.

Firefighters who allegedly stood back rather than entering the tunnels to assist victims were following very important protocols. [2] As anyone with operational experience of working in hazardous conditions knows ‑ whether this experience has been gained with the military, as firefighters, paramedics or even civilian first aiders ‑ it is absolutely vital that responders do not to rush in until they are sure it is safe to do so, otherwise they risk increasing the number of victims while simultaneously depleting the resources available to help them. Such protocol is born out of bitter experience, not 'health and safety gone mad'. There had already been multiple explosions on the morning of 7/7; more were far from unlikely.

Nevertheless, on 7/7, some London Fire Brigade and London Ambulance Service staff rushed forward regardless, and in doing so potentially save some lives that would otherwise have been lost. The value of this has been fully recognised by their respective organisations and has led to the introduction and national roll-out of Hazardous Area Response Teams (HART) - paramedics trained to operate in the 'hot zone' at the heart of the incident alongside firefighters. After all, the latter do not have extensive first-aid training, an important point to remember when questioning any apparent reluctance some might have shown in moving forward to treat the injured. Some HART paramedics are now fully embedded into Fire and Rescue Urban Search and Rescue Teams.

In addition NHS Dressing Packs, which provide first aid equipment to those at the scene, be they professional paramedics needing to be resupplied or a willing member of the public able to provide first aid, are now available at most major transport hubs. They are also in the process of being introduced to other crowded places such as shopping centres and sports stadia. The current media furore that the emergency services were poorly equipped continues to overlook this. [3]

Should a similar incident happen again, the response would be significantly different from the one on 7 July 2005 precisely because lessons have already been identified and they are already being acted upon. In some cases it is a slow transition, but this is usually because of barriers at the policy level, and the continuing difficulties of joining up emergency services that sit under three different Government departments.

Similarly, the communications issues (a staple criticism of any incident response) have moved on significantly since 2005. The Airwave network, on which all emergency services should operate, was fully rolled out only in May 2005. The reasons why its use two months later was not ubiquitous are complex, from the way it is funded to the lack of a government mandate to ensure its take up. The situation was not ideal but things have moved forward. Today, its use is more widespread: it has been rolled out much more widely to all police, fire and ambulance services as well as local authorities and voluntary agencies; importantly, radios now work underground as well as at surface level.

The London Ambulance Service now has a new, higher-tech command and control room that would be better able to cope with a similar event in a way that the technology available ‑ already in the process of being updated ‑ on 7/7 could not. Similarly, the police Casualty Bureau, which handles calls from those whose friends, relatives and colleagues appear to be missing, can now link-up police forces across the UK to handle a much greater volume of calls in a shorter space of time. We need to guard against judging the communications technology of 2005 on what is available now; it is developing quickly and we tend to forget that not everything we can do today was possible five years ago.

Lessons have also been learned from 'losing' potentially valuable witnesses, who simply left the scenes as they were not injured and needed no further assistance. Local authorities now have protocols in place for setting up Survivor Reception Centres. They enable the recording of valuable information that may help later enquiries, and also ensure that information on available medical and counselling support can be communicated, at a later date, to those who may not immediately realise they will need it.

Yet none of this is being reported in the current press coverage. Newspapers with political leanings as diverse as The Guardian and The Daily Mail are giving the impression that after the final bodies had been recovered and the debris cleared, the emergency services shrugged their shoulders and carried on as before. This is not only unfair to the emergency services, who have worked hard behind the scenes to improve the way they operate, it is also dangerous in the current financial climate, with cuts looming over all but the most core functions of the police, fire and ambulance services.

The HART teams, who have proved so valuable in urban search and rescue, as well as contaminated flood water incidents, chemical spills and other situations, are exactly the type of specialist niche capacity that might find itself under threat in a constrained financial climate. The money available for their joint training with the Fire and Rescue Service might become harder to justify. Elsewhere, the National Policing Improvement Agency is to be a victim of the bonfire of Quanqos. Its remit will move into the new National Crime Agency, but to what extent this will subsume the incredibly valuable joint agency work done by its Interoperability Programme, which seeks to improve the way responder agencies work together during all emergencies, not just those caused by criminal action, remains to be seen. We are quick to criticise the emergency services and yet, at the same time, seem just as quick to deny them the opportunities and resources they need to improve.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we must be careful that what we are expecting is reasonable and deliverable. No matter how soon paramedics could have reached the scene, and tended to the injured victims still in the underground tunnels, not all of those who died could have been saved. The Right Honourable Lady Justice Hallet has made it clear that she will allow no unfair criticism of anyone over the fate of the seventeen victims who did not die immediately. She makes a salient point: in the real world it will always take time for expert care to arrive and to reach the injured. A few minutes perhaps could be shaved off response times, but the response will never, and can never be instantaneous. No matter how quickly today's communications technology can send messages, the police and incident commanders will still need time to gather information, to assess that information, to understand it and to formulate a response before an appropriate message can be sent.

During their recent efforts in Haiti, the UK Fire and Rescue Service's International Search and Rescue Team worked with embedded BBC journalists for the first time, giving the press unprecedented access. In doing so, the journalists developed a better understanding of just how hard the rescuers' jobs can be. The rescuers found that a journalist who understood them better was more forgiving of responses that might appear to be less than 'perfect', and more understanding of the difficult decisions they regularly had to make. Such understanding would be just as valuable to the current 7/7 inquiry.


[1] See http://7julyinquest.independent.gov.uk

[2] See http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1321594/7-7-victims-left-die-agony-Survivor-laments-lack-Blitz-spirit.html and http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/survivor-of-77-tells-of-anger-at-rescue-delayed-by-protocols-2110276.html

[3] See Guardian 7/7 firefighters were unable to treat the injured, inquest hears and Sky News


Jennifer Cole

Associate Fellow

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