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Expert Comment: Olympic Games security

Olympic Logo Friday 28 September 2012

As two directors of G4S, the company responsible for the Olympics security shambles, resign Dr Paresh Wankhade, Director, CREST and Editor of International Journal of Emergency Services, celebrates the crucial role played by the emergency services in the success of the games.

Amidst the euphoria to celebrate the success of the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics games, we must not forget the role played by the three blue light emergency services (police, fire and ambulance) along with the security forces and the plethora of other agencies involved in ensuring the safety of the games. With nearly 15,000 athletes and millions of tourists and spectators to deal with, our brave heroes worked tirelessly for months to ensure that the games passed without any untoward incidences or disruptions. The attention to detail that accompanied the planning process is being regarded by many commentators as one of the most important lessons from the London games.

The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (CCA) sets out specific duties and responsibilities for emergency responders. Ambulance, Police and Fire & Rescue Service are listed as a Category 1 Responders in Schedule 1 of the CCA which requires Category 1 responders to maintain plans for preventing emergencies and reducing, controlling or mitigating the effects of emergencies. These services employ a 3 tier command system comprising of a Strategic (Gold) Commander, Tactical (Silver) Commander and an Operational (Bronze) Commander, also referred to as GSB. This is a hierarchical system whereby individuals are empowered through their role within the structure, providing them with specific authority over others for the duration of the incident or event.  It is a matter of great pride that our emergency services delivered a safe Olympics.  

Another notable lesson from the games is that our public sector employees and those working in the frontline of duty, notably the emergency services, still enjoy huge trust of the public. It was quite evident during the games how emergency and security personnel gained everyone’s admiration and respect for their professional conduct. The fiasco of G4S, a private security provider in recruiting enough security personnel is a timely reminder that in the times of crises, we can still rely on our public sector staff.

Notwithstanding these successes, there are considerable challenges to the ‘interoperability’ or the multi-agency cooperation witnessed during the games. Unlike the US (and few other countries) which has a federal agency (e.g: FEMA), the fragmentary nature of the emergency management community in the UK often acts as a barrier to closer interaction between these organisations.  For instance, the three main blue light services work under different government departments- the ambulance service under the Department of Health, the police comes under the Home Office and the Fire and Rescue Service falls under the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG). There are 52 police forces; 58 Fire and Rescue Services and 12 NHS ambulance trusts in the UK. If we add the Category 1 responders (as defined in the CCA, 2004), the sector fragments further. For example, the Environment Agency is part of the Department of Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), local authorities come under DCLG whereas the Coastguard Agency is an executive agency of the Department of Transport, and so on.

Interoperability depends upon three separate but connected elements of people, process/systems and technology. Emergency services are expected to deliver a good quality of service within the backdrop of massive cuts in public spending often working in challenging environments.  We need a serious debate on the Post-Olympics resilience architecture to build on the legacy and investments made during the London 2012 games.

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