Where it happens: a trip to the FCO crisis response centre

Emergency cupboard

When I first took over emergency planning for a local authority my emergency control centre consisted of a cupboard housing two VHF radios and a 60 watt light bulb.

We also had a back up generator.

For the light bulb.

I did manage to negotiate a small office with resilient telecoms, PCs and the inevitable VHF radios. It was a constant battle to stop people occupying the tantalisingly empty desks. But it paid dividends when actual emergencies occurred. Everyone knew where to go, we didn’t disrupt normal operations too much, and we had the tools we needed to hand.

Which is the thinking behind the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Crisis Response Centre.

The centre

Essentially this is a massive office, with 110 desks. It is ready to go if a significant incident occurs that will affect British citizens or interests. I was lucky enough to get a tour round from Shane Dillon, Crisis Technology and Communications Officer. For security reasons I couldn’t take photos and I agreed to submit this post to the FCO before publication.

The Foreign Office is pretty unusual. It has to respond to war, political challenge and natural disasters across the globe. It has staff stationed in dangerous and unpredictable environments. How much can the rest of us really learn from how they structure their crisis response? Quite a lot I think.

Things that struck me (in no particular order)

The centre is dominated by a huge wall screen which can display rolling TV news, social media feeds, mapping or any combination of the above. The FCO monitors social networks alongside conventional media and old fashoned sources of intelligence once a crisis is declared.

The centre has a series of islands intended to be staffed by various teams in a pre-planned arrangement but with flexibility to respond to the distinct nature of specific incidents.

They use Bronze, Silver and Gold nomenclature. I find that these labels are in no way consistently applied between organisations. In this case the Gold Commander is running the crisis response. They will be in the crisis centre and clearly labeled as such. There are bronze teams. Some of these seemed a little more like the STAC concept we have in civil contingencies rather than the operational tier.

There is none of the raking, or tiering I have seen in some control centres. In fact the facility is notably flat. It’s clearly a really flexible space. I think it would be interesting, at least as a thought experiement, to consider whether an LRF could use a similar facility. Rather than having silvers in local police stations and gold in the HQ, why not use one large space. Everyone on tap, everyone sighted on the same issues. Some of the logistical issues would be non-trivial of course.

Each desk has a phone, a PC (on the FCO network) and a monitor. Each workstation also has a small TV screen. You can see how useful that would be to a team monitoring local media while the main screens showed the global news output. There is also the facility for non-FCO staff to bring their own devices and get online, though there is no wifi. That surprised me, I wasn’t allowed to bring my mobile phone in, but presumably partners would bring mobile equipment and expect to use it.

Though the majority of people working in the centre would be FCO staff there would be likely to be staff from other departments and even outside agencies depending on the nature of the crisis. They’ve clearly thought through the implications of this in terms of technology. At a local level we are very bad at this and it presents an ever increasing risk to multi—agency response.

A second, smaller room allows more than one incident to be managed in parallel (which has happened recently). There is also the facility to hold smaller meetings (really for the gold commander) and an attached call centre that can be spun up to handle in-bound enquiries. We couldn’t visit the obligatory boardroom but I am assured it was there.

There is a kitchen and a small staff room. In some ways this is totally unremarkable but the moment I saw it it struck me that I can’t recall the last time I saw a local control centre or silver facility with an appropriate level of welfare space immediately adjacent. It’s really important. We, and presumably the FCO, ask staff to work under considerable pressure and to make rapid decisions with far reaching consequences based on imperfect information. Space to step away from that and clear your head makes a huge difference. Though this does mean that the piece of resilience tech I got most excited about was a fridge.

The crisis response team is based in the centre. This is a pragmatic allocation of space but I imagine it normalises the centre and encourages the team to think about small changes. We tend to lock our response centres away and when we open them in anger we often reveal the things we wish we had remembered to change. They also run exercises in the centre. This makes sense for use makes master.

I asked about the resilience of the facility but any detail on those issues clearly would have security implications. Shane did assure me that they have the plans and procedures you would expect them to have.

In summary

I took up a surprising amount of civil servant time asking questions about what is, at heart, a large open plan office. It’s more than that though, it is a space that has been well thought through and designed, not just for the purpose to which it will be put but with a recognition that every incident is different and flexibility must be designed in.

Thanks to Shane and his colleagues for their warm welcome and being so generous with their time.

Photo is The new FCO Crisis Response Centre by HM Government and used under CC BY-ND 2.0

Open and shut: social networks can improve your information picture

“Last year all this was surrounded by water”

Not surprisingly the emergency planners of Wales are very interested in flooding. The received wisdom is that the biggest risk to communities is from the sea but the astonishing weather of 2012 brought rivers into the homes of thousands of folk many of whom have yet to return.

I was at the Spring Conference of the EPS Wales Branch. I was there on a speaking gig but I would have gone as a delegate. The fact that the committee managed, once again, to deliver a quality event that really meets the needs of their members should be an inspiration to other branches and other societies.

I won’t go into detail about many of the presentations because some of them were the no-holds-barred stuff you get amongst peers and may not suit broadcast on a public blog.

But two presentations did seem to link together to tell a story.

We heard from a local authority emergency planner who had been involved in the response to a significant series of flooding event. Some things had gone well, some had gone less well but thankfully there were no deaths and low levels of injuries.

As has happened in every emergency I have ever been involved in they had struggled with the information picture. Sitting in your office while storms rage around you and teams of people on the ground are very concerned with operations and less concerned with sit reps can be a frustrating experience. But without the picture it is harder to make good decisions.

Then we heard from the excellent Barry Jones (until very recently at BBC Wales) about how the BBC had approached the coverage of several emergencies across Wales last year. This was in itself fascinating but most striking was his analysis of the social media traffic around the specific incidents discussed above.

He had no doubt that there were sufficient data in social networks to build a much improved imformation picture around that incident.

There is a presumption amongst those of us who work in this sphere that monitoring social media should help responders to understand what is going on. In the UK many emergency planners and responders continue to rely almost exclusively on traditional models for collecting and analysising data. It is practically hard to prove that there is data available that they are missing by not monitoring the onlibne environment.

But this was an open and shut case.