5.4 Emergency planning as a public protection activity
Uniformed emergency services – police, fire authorities and ambulance services – and organisations such as NHS hospitals, have an obvious role in the response to civil emergencies. Local authorities have an important, although less clearly defined, role. This is based on a mixture of specific legal duties coupled to a general ‘duty of care’ to maintain essential services even in an emergency. Much of this section describes the work of local authority emergency planning officers (EPOs), and emergency services, but it is not written exclusively with these professional groups in mind. Many principles are transferable to other organisations.
The involvement of local authorities in emergency planning tends to vary. Emergency planning is usually a function of Unitary authorities, or where there is a two-tier local authority structure, of County Councils. However, one survey of local authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland revealed that in 1999, nearly 50 per cent of District (second tier) and Unitary authorities had been involved in dealing with a ‘chemical incident’ of some sort in that one year alone (Waterworth and Fairman, 2000, cited in Fairman et al., 2001, p. 1).
The working definition of a ‘chemical incident’ used by Fairman et al. (2001, p. 3) is: ‘an event leading to the exposure of two or more individuals to any substance resulting in illness or potentially toxic threat to health’. That definition would exclude from the statistics near-miss incidents where there was a potential risk of exposure that did not materialise. The number of near misses remains an unknown number, but in Section 1 you came across ‘Heinrich's triangle’ (Figure 4) that proposes that for every major injury there are 29 minor injuries and 300 non-injury accidents. The same probably holds good for major incidents. There must be a lot of potential major incidents that are narrowly avoided.
When considered as a public protection activity, what is being undertaken is management of a crisis. The event is (usually) external to the responding organisation. Their own organisational infrastructure is usually intact and functioning normally, and all their resources are accessible. This may mean that they overlook the possibility of themselves being affected. Storms and severe flooding can make it just as difficult for emergency service personnel to get to their operational base, as to get vehicles and equipment from the base to where they are needed. Disruption to the electricity distribution system can put control rooms and public buildings such as council offices and hospitals out of action. Organisations planning to cope with an emergency affecting someone else must also plan to cope with an emergency affecting themselves – possibly occurring at the same time.