Ready for the worst

Last month’s arrest of nine suspected terrorists in London and
south east England brought home how such activity is not confined
to mainland Europe or the US. The arrests came just weeks after the
bomb attack on rush hour trains in Madrid last month. Shortly
afterwards, Tony Blair joined other European leaders in Brussels to
discuss their response to the terror threat. So with the
possibility of a terrorist attack in the UK only too real, what
would social services do to ensure their clients were

Association of Directors of Social Services’ president Andrew
Cozens insists social services would act swiftly in the event of
such a scenario happening here. All councils have emergency
planning responsibilities and social services deliver theirs in
partnership with key voluntary sector organisations. “Local
authorities in England have substantial experience of this, such as
dealing with the Bradford fire and the Zeebrugge ferry disaster.”
He advocates that councils develop clear procedures on what to do
in a disaster and run regular desktop exercises on

In researching this article five councils refused to discuss their
plans, saying the issue was too sensitive. David Kerry, chair of
the London Local Authorities Emergency Planning Group, says their
reluctance does not surprise him. “Emergency planning is taking
place but there are protocols and security issues around it,” he
says. However, he rejects the notion that releasing these details
will cause the public to panic: “I think it will reassure them, but
the home secretary disagrees. If I was an ordinary member of the
public I would think ‘why can’t the government trust me?’.”

Cozens says people should feel confident that their local
authorities have emergency plans in place, although details “do not
need to be revealed.”

Below, three London boroughs respond to our worst case scenario and
describe the preparations they have in place. Also, Swansea and
Glasgow outline their arrangements, and Madrid describes how it

The worst case scenario 

  • Thursday 5.30pm: At the height of the rush hour, bombs are
    detonated simultaneously at three commuter hubs:London Bridge,
    Westminster tube station and Charing Cross station. The noise of
    the explosions reverberates across London. 
  • 5.45pm: A lorry parked outside 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf,
    explodes. At 800ft it is one of the tallest office blocks in Europe
    and home to the Daily Telegraph and The
  • 6pm: Oxford Street shoppers are targeted by a bomb blast at

Southwark (covers London Bridge area) 

Southwark Council has identified 14 community centres, leisure
centres and schools across the borough it can use as rest centres
following an emergency. 

A rest centre is a safe, temporary shelter for people who have
been evacuated from their homes following a major incident such as
a bomb or flood. People stay there until they are allowed to return
to their homes or go into other accommodation. While in a rest
centre their needs are assessed and they are provided with
appropriate services, including medication and food. 

Southwark has a formal agreement with the Women’s Royal
Voluntary Service to assist in the management of these rest
centres. The council’s social services managers have received a
special briefing on the issues arising from a major incident and
establishing rest centres. The council will also involve faith
communities in providing comfort and care to those in the

David Mearns, head of administrative services at Southwark and
responsible for the authority’s emergency planning, says: “Our
plans include arrangements to transport people to a rest centre –
no one would be left to fend for themselves.”  

He says the council follows a programme of exercises to test its
response involving the emergency services, as well as regular
planning meetings with its neighbouring boroughs. In June,
Southwark is taking part in a major exercise organised by the
London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority. It will involve six
other south London boroughs and the emergency services.    

Tower Hamlets (covers Canary Wharf) 

Last month, Tower Hamlets and Greenwich Councils rehearsed their
response in the event of an incident in Blackwall Tunnel. A
strategic group from both local authorities met, were told what the
scenario was and went through the process of tackling it step by
step, hour by hour.  

Ian Wilson, social services director at Tower Hamlets, says the
exercise was enormously useful. “It enabled us to check that the
systems we have in place are not purely theoretical but will work
on the day.” He adds the threat of a terrorist attack is not a
hypothetical situation for the authority as it has had to cope with
it several times before. On 9 February 1996 an IRA bomb was
detonated near South Quay station killing two people, and on 24
April 1999 David Copeland attempted to bomb Brick Lane. The device
was found by a passer-by and it exploded in the boot of his car
injuring several people. 

Tower Hamlets has 27 schools identified for use as rest centres
during a disaster. It operates a cascade system for contacting
staff via their home, mobile or work numbers. The council holds
lists of employees from all departments, including social care, who
have volunteered to work in the rest centres providing residents
with help and information. Wilson says: “One shift of people will
start after the other and we can continue like that.” Emergency
planning has also taken into account how to react to an incident
where chemicals have been released into the air: “The rest centres
will have to be a sufficient distance away from the contaminated

If Tower Hamlets goes into disaster mode, Wilson insists
vulnerable people will continue to receive their services.    

Westminster (covers Houses of Parliament, Charing Cross
and Oxford Street)

Some of the capital’s most infamous disasters have happened
within the boundaries of Westminster: 51 people died on 20 August
1989 when the Marchioness sank on the River Thames; three people
were killed in the Soho pub bombing on 30 April 1999; and in the
same year 31 died in the Paddington rail crash on 5 October. 

Westminster Council has allocated 12 schools and leisure centres
for use as rest centres, dealing with a total of 2,000 people. If
necessary it can mobilise a further 25-30 theatres and commercial
premises to act as help and information centres providing residents
with additional advice, including signposting them to counselling
services. These centres can handle a total of 30,000 people. The
social services database can be accessed to identify which
residents may need extra help. 

Westminster’s social services director Julie Jones says: “I hope
that no one will slip through the net. Our experience suggests that
this doesn’t happen.” In the past the council has even arranged pet
care for residents concerned about their animals.  

During the mock major terrorist incident at Bank tube station
last September, Westminster sent its emergency planning experts to
observe and learn. Jones says although the authority’s staff have
been thoroughly trained, it has not shut down streets or tube
stations. “As we have had real experience, the need to have a mock
incident is less of a priority.” 

Social care staff are the unsung heroes of managing a disaster,
says Jones. “They are not in uniform and first on the scene; they
are the back-up who stay on and see it through to the end. It is
invisible work and sometimes misunderstood.”

Swansea – ‘Be flexible and prioritise on

In the first three months of 2004 Swansea Council took part in
three joint exercises organised by the emergency planning unit
Celtic Protector, led by South Wales police. The first mock
incident involved people pretending to be victims of a “dirty” –
chemical – bomb; the second was a closed exercise with the police
and military; and the third was a desktop exercise that reviewed
the first two incidents and included representatives from the

Swansea has identified about 70 buildings for use as rest
centres in a disaster, some of which it can operate with
neighbouring council Neath Port Talbot. The WRVS, Red Cross, St
John’s Ambulance and district nurses will all be in attendance at
the rest centres. Swansea can also call in 14 qualified social
workers and counsellors to deal with traumatised people. In the
weeks following a major incident, Swansea’s social services will
run a telephone line for people needing counselling. 

David Evans, Swansea’s emergency planning liaison officer, is
confident the council can provide existing services if attacked
although he admits it will depend on its scale and nature. “Our
approach is to be flexible and prioritise on the day,” he says.

Glasgow- ‘Operate on common sense and

Glasgow is divided into nine areas, each containing at least one
building identified as a rest centre, with the potential for more.
Each centre can deal with 230 displaced people, while Kelvin Hall
in the west end of Glasgow can cope with 500. The council’s major
incident support team – comprising senior social services staff,
nurses with psychiatric backgrounds and volunteer social workers –
will all attend the rest centres.  

Glasgow Council principal fieldwork officer John Donaldson is
realistic about what support social services can provide in a
disaster. He says: “If it gets to a point of dealing with 800
people, having identified a large number with special needs, we’ll
have to look at providing a different model of support.” This is
not, he insists, shorthand for leaving users without support and
says the council would open day centres instead. 

Donaldson says the authority has core preparations of what to do
in an emergency, who should be contacted and what protocols to
follow. “But when it comes down to it being 2am and someone who is
in post has not been through a real life incident, you have to
operate on common sense and goodwill.”

Madrid  – How did it cope?

When the train bombs went off in Madrid on 11 March the city
council immediately mobilised its emergency unit of social workers,
Sitade. The unit, launched in 1988 after two major fires in the
1980s, is a permanent department dealing with social emergencies
and operates 24 hours a day, every day of the year. It is now
experienced in dealing with fires and terrorist acts.  

Madrid also has mobile social units – Samur Social – to deal
with “more common” emergencies. In this case, as with medical
emergencies, social workers go to the place where the emergency is.
This service comprises four mobile units and eight street

Sitade and Samur Social co-ordinated the many social workers and
psychologists who volunteered their services in the aftermath of
the bombs.  Social workers and psychologists acted as a point of
reference for the families of victims. In the days after the attack
they supported them in identifying bodies, arranged funerals and
organised lodgings for relatives travelling into Madrid. On 23
March a special office was opened to provide continued assistance
to families. 

As the attacks took place on rush hour trains few older and
disabled people were among the victims. But some of the victims
were the main carers of older and disabled people. In these cases,
social workers contacted day centres and older people to put care
arrangements into place. 

Meanwhile, those who were disabled by the bombs are being helped
by Spain’s Association of Disabled People.  Ernesto Cabello,
director of social services in Madrid Council’s department for
employment and services to citizens, tells Community Care it is
necessary to have a permanent social emergencies unit that can act
as co-ordinator in such circumstances. “In a terrorist attack of
such dimensions we have to organise the chaos. Therefore,
co-ordination becomes essential,” he says.

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