Things to pay attention to: Exercise Watermark

Exercise Watermark was one of the largest civil contingency exercise every conducted in the UK. It involved all layers of emergency response in large parts of England and Wales from central government to local communities in “playing” a realistic flooding scenario. The purpose was to test the country’s plans and procedures and to identify areas for further improvement.
The Exercise ran in March 2011

The interim findings were published in June [opens a PDF click here for the source page].

The final findings will be published in September.

I want to highlight a couple of areas.

Working with traditional media.

The report had a team playing the role of media organisations and therefore was able to test how effectively responders worked with conventional media organisations.

There were a number of learning points raised in the draft report and I strongly urge everyone in communications in a Category One Responder to review pages 38 and 39 pretty soon. There were issues of “empowering” press officers and of individual responders not being active in terms of their media relations. I was particularly struck by paragraph 4.57

In LRF areas there were some problems with Police Gold Commanders exacting rigid control over the multi-agency media cell, even to the extent in one area of stopping the Environment Agency issuing such flood warning press releases, until they had passed through the local Gold clearance process, which led to more delay.

Clearly a police Gold Commander hasn’t got the power to stop the Environment Agency issuing press releases but this highlights the need to exercise multi-agency communications arrangements and to train everyone involved in the response.

There are three draft recommendations in this area:

  • Draft Recommendation 20 – Press Officer media response training should cover time management and resource issues such as mutual aid so that organisations can exercise and develop mutual aid techniques, ‘like for like press officers’.
  • Draft Recommendation 21 – Press officers should be empowered to ensure communication with the media is not delayed by awaiting sign-off from senior management.
  • Draft Recommendation 22 – Top Line Briefs from the News Co-ordination Centre should be briefer and more frequent, while the West Yorkshire LRF releases should be used as a template for future multi-agency releases on flood incidents.

This is before we move on to social media. Where the draft report has much to say (pages 39-42).

Social media.

11 out of the 26 core agencies and government departments did not engage at all with the exercise social media stream. Some agencies who did engage used social media as a broadcast tool, essentially treating it as an extension to conventional media. The report is very positive about the benefits that can flow from effective use of social media and there are these three draft recommendations as a result.

  • Draft Recommendation 23 – There should be an audit to assess social media capability, capacity and access within government departments and the emergency responder community. Actions that remove barriers to social media interaction should be considered.
  • Draft Recommendation 24 – Government departments and responders should ‘lead the conversation’ and engage with social media.
  • Draft Recommendation 25 – To improve consistency, emergency responders need to undertake a basic social media training so they understand the language, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats posed by social media. Training should also cover practical guidance on use of existing internet tools to monitor and respond to comments on Twitter etc.

It was an event of considerable scale and significance. It highlighted many areas where the public should be reassured by the plans and procedures that are in place. That should not prevent responders from overlooking the many and very sensible recommendations for future improvements.