I’m an emergency planner. Manchester shows we need new ways to heal – Lucy Easthope
I have been writing these emergency plans for over a decade as a national adviser on “recovery management”, running exercises and training events all over the country for police and civil servants. I present Powerpoints to them on “recovery lessons” from around the world – “I heart Stockholm; I heart Paris … here is some wording from the USA about never giving in …” We design scenarios and we test the kit, the emergency phone line, the evacuation, the family liaison, the press conference and the politician’s first statement, all to a narrative that we invent involving a fake airline or a fictitious shopping mall.
Yesterday I watched with enormous pride as first responders did what we ask of them and a particular source of hope was what appeared to be unfolding in the Etihad stadium in Manchester. This was one of the pre-identified venues that Manchester authorities had readied to act as what is surely one of the worst places ever to be; the place we take worried relatives while they wait for news with a very British cup of tea. For some reason we always allow a perception to endure that these places spring up unexpectedly as the result of an outpouring of goodwill, but in fact they are a product of detailed frameworks and a memorandum of understanding between local authorities and the British Red Cross. One account yesterday talked of a centre worker approaching a family member, whispering gently to them, and holding them as they crumpled to the floor. I have been there. Those first noises from a family member receiving terrible news are seared onto my memory; I will never forget their screams of grief. The same noises were heard in the Royal Horticultural Halls 12 years ago in London, and in every assistance centre ever activated for what we planners call “mass fatality events”. It’s the fear of this noise and then of failing to have any words of comfort that comes up most frequently when I ask responders what they are most worried about if called upon.
The activation of this assistance centre for the very worst case scenario has been planned for over two decades by emergency planners clutching the course notes of a hundred presentations on the lessons identified from centres established for disasters past. My eye was caught yesterday by a reference to shocked and strained concert goers being supplied with phones to call relatives. Phew – on our assistance centre checklists in recent years there has always been a reminder that lots of charged phones and phone chargers will be needed.
I have written before about the hidden work done every day by emergency planners in local authorities, the NHS and police forces and here they were again doing wonderful things in extremis with ever shrinking budgets. The communities they protect are generally completely unaware of the maps that show all the potential assistance centres that could be readied in a few hours in the case of an attack.
But mainly yesterday I thought back to one of the starkest moments of my career when Gordon Brown stated in a speech to the Royal United Services Institute in February 2006 that “the global terrorist threat is such that we cannot afford not to be vigilant at all times.” By that point I had seen up close what a suicide bomber does to the fragile human frame. Brown’s words devastated me. He was always a measured speaker and I knew that what he was saying was so, so much worse than the way it was perhaps interpreted. I glimpsed a future of repeated attacks – I believe we are in that era now. I glimpsed the carnage and the loss and the pain; attacks designed by terrorists to try to create a tear in the relationship between Muslims and their friends and neighbours. And I cursed Brown for not spelling out in this speech, bluntly, what his words really meant: that my colleagues would spend the next 11 years quietly training people to sit patiently with a mother and ask her gently for permission to swab her mouth for DNA, while she prayed to any god she knew that her small daughter, lip-glossed and growing too fast, was currently being sheltered in a Holiday Inn rather than carefully tended in a mortuary we have purpose built for when the call comes in.
It was always going to be children. That fits the new terrorist modus operandi of hitting us where we hurt most, and yet this is always the scenario we censor in exercises. Most local authorities will test a scenario involving a gas leak or a suspicious package in an office block long before they let anyone run an exercise that involves the wiping out of a school party on a trip to the theatre.
So yesterday, as I tried so hard to follow Andy Burnham’s advice to rise above it all, and went to a series of pre-planned meetings with anxious colleagues, checked my email and ate my sandwich, I realised that perhaps he and I have got it wrong on this one. This horror is too raw and too visceral and has too many children as targets for “business as usual” to ever have been the right message. Instead we need to be given a bit more time to rage and roar like wounded animals; we need a day of national mourning; we need a brief moment away from social media to decide how we really feel. And if that is a day spent screaming at the sky and then cuddling our toddlers then so be it.
I was wrong to insist in my training that the first message should be “we will overcome” as if the enemy was on the beaches and weakness would be letting someone or something win. Yesterday I realised that the fight rhetoric has gone too far and instead what we need to do is to admit how much this hurts. Ever since 9/11 there has been a sense that falling to our knees in despair would be letting “them” win but there is perhaps a greater bravery in admitting what the loss of people means to us. By rushing to show that this will not break us we are also allowing a cycle to emerge; we are hit; we will stand strong; we are hit; we stand together and thus we allow our leaders to never address just how much damage is being done to our nation. And this perpetuity that Gordon Brown alluded to, and I saw so vividly, cannot be allowed to endure with only those working behind the scenes, preparing the next assistance centre, seeing a grim path that lies ahead.
Last night, as the threat level was raised to critical, I found myself asking: if this is our new normal then the time has come for new thinking about how we heal.