By Kate Elswood
From the 29th of February to the 3rd of March, London emergency services underwent the largest training exercise in its history. This project, called Exercise Unified Response, took place in four locations in central and south east London. A central part of the training involved the creation of a fake tube station, intended to replicate Waterloo Station. The event involved the simulation of the collapse of a building over this station. The fake disaster scene was located in a disused power station, near to the Dartford river crossing. Over 70 agencies were involved in this exercise, including the police, ambulance and fire services as well as Transport for London, London’s Air Ambulance and teams from outside London, such as Birmingham Resilience Team and specialist teams, including Disaster Victim Identification.
Exercise Unified Response is funded by the EU, costing £770,000. This four-day project in London may not be considered a worthwhile cause for funding from the EU. However, the practice has been beneficial not only to emergency services in London, but has had an economic benefit, in the provision of jobs. The project took a year to plan and specialists from Hungary, Italy and Cyprus have assisted with the event. Moreover, jobs were created in London as the project involved hiring actors for the event, as well as providing jobs for those involved in the planning and construction of the event.
However, the main intention of this was evidently not economic. The training project was intended to be beneficial to emergency services, as it provided a practice in emergency response. But this is perhaps where the project is weak, falling short of its intentions. The event may be useful, as the simulation of this high-pressure situation could help emergency services to be prepared for such a disaster, but the fact that they know it is not real means that they may respond differently to a real disaster. The simulation cannot prepare them for this. Furthermore, the fact that it was planned and so they were expecting the disaster means that it does not create a realistic experience.
Moreover, although the training drill involved many people, it is possible that the people working on the day of a real disaster may not be the ones involved in the drill. It also appears that this experience is unlikely to be put into practice by those that attended the event. It should not change the way that they respond to a disaster as previous training should already provide them with the skills they will need.
In addition, every disaster is different, the numbers of casualties and fatalities involved differ as well as the nature of the casualties, so it is impossible to be truly prepared. Thus, the aim of the exercise, to prepare London’s emergency services for a disaster, was not an aim that could be achieved. Their existing training should already make them as prepared as they could possibly be.
Despite this, a positive impact could be gained from this training exercise because it could make Londoners and those visiting London feel safer. The event could make the public more conscious of the fact that emergency services are prepared to face mass-scale disasters. Therefore, it is a useful idea but it may not actually make a difference to the behaviour of emergency services in case of a disaster, due to it being unrealistic and the fact that emergency services should already as prepared as they can be from their training. It is impossible to be fully prepared for a mass-scale disaster.