Public heroism is no substitute for a coordinated response when disaster strikes

“WHAT’S the worst that could happen?”

That’s the first question those working in resilience planning have to ask, and in these uncertain times it’s not an easy one to answer. The second is “how should we respond?”

On Tuesday night the BBC broadcast extraordinary scenes in its fly-in-the-wall documentary Hospital, showing how the staff of St Mary’s in London didn’t just cope but excelled amid the chaos and confusion of last month’s attack on Westminster. After a chorus of urgent ringtones interrupted a meeting – ironically, a meeting about chronic staff shortages – viewers saw managers calmly put their major incident training into practice.

This was a far cry from the frantic scenes of old TV dramas like ER, in which doctors would dash down corridors to perform tricky procedures while mopping the sweat from their unfeasibly beautiful brows. Instead it was a showcase of professionalism under pressure, in which cold-headed people in coloured tabards dealt with horrifying injuries in between piecing together what had happened from news bulletins, just like everyone else.

At times like these it’s hard to find enough praise for the UK’s emergency services

At times like these – and there have been several “times like these” since that day – it’s hard to find enough praise for the UK’s emergency services. Despite the cuts to the police numbers, despite the staffing crisis in the NHS, despite the closure of fire stations, they stand ready and waiting to save lives.

But resilience planning has to go beyond first responders, the military and the voluntary sector and involve the business community too. When disaster strikes our cities, and people are stranded or displaced, the most urgent requirement is somewhere safe for them to go.

In the immediate aftermath of an unthinkable expression of hate like the Manchester bombing, it’s only natural that people seek to redress the balance by demonstrating compassion. So when Twitter users began offering beds for the night to those stranded in the city, others quickly followed suit. Manchester mayor Andy Burnham urged concert-goers to “follow #RoomForManchester where hotels and local people of our great city are offering refuge.”

Meanwhile, a hero was identified in the form of Paula Robinson, a local woman who ushered teenagers to the safety of a Holiday Inn in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, and posted her mobile number online so that worried parents could call.

Ideally we shouldn’t be hearing about ordinary people stepping in to offer shelter and accommodation

Efforts like these provide much-needed light and hope on the darkest of days, but ideally we shouldn’t be hearing about ordinary people stepping in to offer shelter and accommodation, any more than we should be relying on first-aiders, fire wardens and army cadets instead of paramedics, firefighters and police officers.

Our major cities are not short of places where displaced people could sleep. While obviously longer-term housing solutions are needed in the wake of disasters like the Grenfell Tower fire in which people lose their homes, we have a hospitality industry that could be on standby for emergencies.

Empty rooms might be few and far between when there’s a major event in town, but hotels have conference suites and banqueting rooms that could offer far greater peace and comfort than the hard floor of a church or community hall. They have trained staff who could don coloured tabards and take over from Good Samaritans on the scene. Major incident planning could provide assurances that the cost of putting people up would be covered, and hotels could register in advance then log their availability in a time of crisis – rather than relying on Twitter posts and running the risk of being overwhelmed.

#RoomForManchester was a risky response to a crisis in which large numbers of young women and girls were terrified, disorientated and stuck

It would have felt mean-spirited and unhelpful to say so at the time, but #RoomForManchester was a risky response to a crisis in which large numbers of young women and girls were terrified, disorientated and stuck. Sadly, to imagine that no-one would dream of exploiting a temporary suspension of stranger-danger warnings is to underestimate the opportunism of sexual predators. It is to be hoped the teenagers who saw the many offers of rooms, cups of tea and hugs on their smartphones were able to use the same devices to call their parents and seek advice about where to go and who to trust.

On Wednesday, Theresa May apologised for the “failure of the state, local and national” in the week of last week’s horrifying fire, and promised a “new strategy for resilience in major disasters”. It’s too little too late for the homeless survivors, some of whom have reportedly been forced to sleep rough as a result of an unfathomably chaotic initial response to the blaze.

While the preservation of life must always be the top priority in an emergency situation, the preservation of dignity and the provision of comfort are vital too. After every tragedy we hear about the kindness of strangers, about spontaneous acts of bravery and resourcefulness – and these are stories we want to hear, maybe need to hear, alongside the death tolls and grim headlines. The cruellest detail of Sunday night’s attack in Finsury Park was that most of those who were injured had come to the aid of someone else in need.

We make resilience plans in the hope we’ll never need to use them. The brave efforts of individual at the scene of a crime or accident should of course be commended, but they are no substitute for well-planned and effectively co-ordinated responses like that of the St Mary’s Hospital staff. We’re going to need a few more tabards.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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