Evacuation in the United Kingdom: Reshaping Policy

In December 2009, more than 2,000 people were evacuated from four Eurostar trains that, after breaking down during Britain’s worst winter in over 30 years, were trapped in the Channel Tunnel between England and France. Some passengers were evacuated to shuttle trains that were carrying vehicles, but others were trapped inside overnight without food, water, light, air conditioning, or electricity. Others chose to open the emergency doors and risk walking through the tunnels to find refuge on another train.

An independent study published two months later demanded an “urgent review” of evacuation procedures. It also criticized the “insufficient” contingency plans, the lack of replacement buses, and unsatisfactory attempts to inform passengers of the disruption.

The incident highlighted shortcomings in a private U.K. transportation company’s evacuation procedures in what was a relatively self-limiting situation. Over the years, there have been a number of incidents that were far more serious, requiring sudden and mass evacuations directed both by local authorities and by the national government. For example, the “7/7” (7 July 2005) bombings on the London transit system claimed 52 lives, injured over 700 others, and brought the capital to a standstill. Although enormous acts of bravery were performed by first responders, underground staff, and the public, much of the passenger evacuation from the tube network was haphazard.

Probably the most valid criticism, though, was that most if not quite all government agencies were ill prepared for the nature of the incident – London’s first ever suicide bombings; the lack of preparation was caused principally, it seems, by the poor to non-existent communications between emergency service personnel at the affected stations.

Acts of Government vs. Acts of Nature

Although London remains the United Kingdom’s prime terrorist target, other British cities have had unsettling far-reaching experiences with terrorism. In addition, some areas of Britain are more prone than others to industrial and/or nuclear disasters, and/or to weather-related events that necessitate improved response planning. However, the increased terrorist threat did lead to the passing of the Civil Contingencies Act in 2004 (before the 2005 bombings, it is worth pointing out). That Act remains the major legislative plank establishing a framework for multi-agency planning at the local and regional levels to prepare emergency services for flooding and other natural disasters, terrorism, and major transport and power failures in general.

The 2004 Civil Contingencies Act requires Category 1 responders to maintain and practice plans – usually if not always through tabletop exercises – while taking into account the many organizations that would be involved in an incident. For example, the limited radiological release caused by the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko in London in late 2006 brought in three government departments, one local council, the Metropolitan Police, the Heathrow Airport Authority, the Health Protection Agency, and the Government Decontamination Service, as well as representatives from overseas authorities. No evacuation was needed, but the operation served as an unintentional “dry run” for responding to an explosive radiological attack in the heart of London.

By 2006, non-statutory government guidance allowed local services to develop their own response plans – and to use more flexible evacuation and shelter measures, based primarily on local needs and the nature and potential spread of an incident – rather than planning for the largest conceivable number of evacuees. The public may be advised, under the revised guidance, to stay put and seek shelter in the nearest suitable building, for example, particularly in the case of a chemical, biological, or radiological (CBR) release.

Large-Scale Evacuations; Varying Lengths of Time

A risk-based approach provides emergency evacuation plans as well as shelter plans for people remaining in their homes or workplaces during an incident. The police decide whether to evacuate civilians but, together with the Fire and Rescue Service (FRS), they receive advice from other emergency services, government departments, and agencies through a “Joint Health Advisory Cell” at the GOLD level, or through Health Advisory Teams (HATs) via central-government crisis-management arrangements.

One of the biggest peacetime evacuations in Britain occurred after the tidal floods of 1953, which displaced over 32,000 from the nation’s east coast. More recently – in November 2009, the wettest on record – hundreds of villagers in Cumbria in northern England were evacuated. Because of the unpredictability of floods, citizens usually are advised to stay indoors – on upper floors when and where possible – rather than risk being caught in fast-moving waters. For planning purposes it is generally agreed that, for evacuation warnings to be effective, U.K. authorities need up to one hour for a breach in flood defenses, up to eight hours when a surge is forecast, and up to 48 hours for river flooding. Inundation maps from flood models have been used to create flood-specific evacuation plans for certain urban areas, primarily because of the highly complex patterns of rising waters blocking normal evacuation routes.

Multiple terrorist attacks or industrial disasters might well necessitate moving thousands of citizens from a relatively large unsafe area. In London and other major cities, a high dependency on public transport requires that temporary shelters and/or alternative means of transport be available for stranded citizens. The planner’s nightmare is a major traffic gridlock on Britain’s narrow roads and/or the simultaneous stranding of motorists during severe weather conditions. The planners’ aim is to stagger the movement of people over longer time frames to help prevent both gridlock and accidents.

Local authorities are tasked with overseeing response, cleanup, and shelter provisions involving schools and other “special-purpose” facilities. Under the Civil Contingencies Act, the authorities also must provide information to businesses on how to secure and protect their assets if their factories and other working premises have to be evacuated. The same authorities, and organizations such as City Security and Resilience Networks (CSARNs), advise on business-continuity plans, and join forces to help train businesses and voluntary organizations involved in response and recovery operations.

For industrial accidents, each site must have a specific plan. Where there has been an accidental or deliberate release of hazardous materials (HazMat), those in the area would be dissuaded from spontaneously evacuating – thereby possibly spreading contamination to other people and locations, especially transit systems. In a radiation event, those in the immediate vicinity are advised to stay inside, with their doors and windows closed, until the threat has passed or they are ordered to evacuate. In the United Kingdom, an accident would be most likely to occur around the world’s biggest reprocessing plant at Sellafield, in Cumbria. No matter where the location, though, those needing decontamination prior to evacuation, especially those with additional welfare needs, would require support to obviate their immediate panic and distress. To prevent evacuations prior to decontamination, the police may have to stop people from breaking through cordons.

Training and Exercises in a 24/7 Milieu

The U.K. government program aims to test every aspect of operations from the coordinated central response: (a) through the range of “Lead Government Department” responsibilities; and (b) the involvement of the Devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales; to (c) the regional tier and local responders. The Civil Contingencies Act also requires Category 1 responders to conduct exercises and enhance the training of staff and incident commanders in emergency plans, procedures, and the correct use of equipment. Emergency services agencies develop their own exercise programs to test their own capabilities.

In June 2004, exercise “Triton” tested the evacuation for large-scale flooding in England and Wales. Triton – which was jointly sponsored by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG), and involved more than 60 national, local, and regional organizations – was credited with exposing a number of capability shortcomings.

Exercises also must not only test coordination between organizations but also their ability to ensure business continuity as far as possible – with information provided to the public both quickly and without panic. This is a tall order in an era of 24-hour television news broadcasting and the immediacy of the Internet. In addition, though, a report indicating progress of recommendation implementation must be produced within 12 months of the post-exercise report.

Improving Communications: A 24/7 Approach Is Mandatory

Even in a digital era – or possibly even more so – communications are often the Achilles’ heel of response during and after incidents. Communicating the implications of a combined response to the public poses huge challenges. Some citizens would be offered in situ sheltering in areas where contamination is likely, while others would be evacuated from areas when there is sufficient time to get them out before the most harmful effects – flooding, for example – of the incident kick in.

A Category 1 responder has specific responsibility for warning and informing the public about evacuations. Local authorities already are implementing systems – e.g., text messaging, email, and the Internet – to alert businesses and the public to incidents. However, because no one system suits all evacuation situations, planners must develop a flexible range of methods to communicate during evacuations – at different times of the day or night, as well as from a broad spectrum of locations: homes or offices, industrial complexes, shopping malls, ports, and airports.

Of vital importance is the effective use of the media – but many news outlets, unfortunately, tend to provide knee-jerk reactions during the early stages of an incident. An appointed representative of the police or other appropriate responder service, or press office, would almost always, though, feed information to the media constantly. In addition, public-address announcements, through systems such as Sky Shout, would be used as well as face-to-face contact and Tannoy announcements in public areas such as railway stations.

Managing the movement of people would be aided through the use of urban CCTV (closed circuit television) traffic management and control systems, especially in city centers, and would be all-important in providing real-time information on traffic and people flows. Many local U.K. authorities, working in conjunction with local police, have already adopted the priority “Alert” telephonic system to send emergency messages to registered citizens and businesses via SMS text messaging to mobile phones, emails, or pagers.

Two political/technological milestones will help considerably in this area: (1) Approximately £12 million will be spent by Eurostar on a new communications system inside the Channel tunnel. (2) To address the shortcomings exposed during the 7/7 attacks, a new £100 million “Airwave” Tetra-based radio system, overseen by the National Policing Improvement Agency, became fully operational in early 2009 for use both above and below ground. The biggest test for the new system, and for London’s preparedness across the board, will arguably come during the London Olympics in 2012, which is confidently expected to be the United Kingdom’s most costly and extensive security operation in the nation’s history.

Andy Oppenheimer

Andy  Oppenheimer is an independent UK-based CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, explosives) consultant and former editor of Jane’s Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defence. His book (IRA: The Bombs and the Bullets – A History of Deadly Ingenuity) was published in November 2008 by the Irish Academic Press.



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