Emergency measures

The year is not yet over but, whether it is hurricanes, earthquakes or terror attacks, 2005 has been notable for its number of disasters. And the surprise element of these emergencies shows how important it is for authorities to be prepared for whatever comes their way.

And, as several London boroughs found on 7 July, that includes local authorities. Although the emergency services will be the first at the scene of a major incident, the local authority may become involved soon after and continue to offer practical help and support to a community for months, or even years, afterwards. Now, under new legislation that comes into force on 14 November – part one of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 – local authorities in the UK are required by law to focus on emergency planning so that, should a disaster happen, they are prepared.

Local authorities, along with the emergency services and parts of the NHS, are classified as category one responders in an emergency. Given their welfare remit, social services departments are key agencies. In light of this, guidance has been issued by the Cabinet Office to social services directors, setting out their responsibilities to emergency planning.

Pauline Marren, an emergency planning co-ordinator who speaks for professional body The Emergency Planning Society, says the law has already changed attitudes.

She says: “Until the act any sort of emergency planning was done on an ad hoc basis with some councils more interested than others, but the act has engendered more corporate awareness across the whole council. Before, emergency planning was handled in isolation by the emergency planning department. Now it’s seen as a corporate function.”

Part of this change may be due to the fact that a council’s failure to take its duties seriously will be reflected in its comprehensive performance assessment (CPA).

Marren thinks the legislation will have a significant impact on social services. Under the act, local authority departments, including social services, must have business continuity plans in place that identify essential services and explain how they will continue to be provided in an emergency. This could mean devising ways to manage mass staff sickness or coming up with other sites should buildings be inaccessible. For social services, it also means looking beyond their own staff and services.

Marren says: “They are also responsible for ensuring that all the services that are contracted out have robust continuity plans to show how they will continue to provide services. It will have a big impact because so many contracted out services are essential. But you can’t leave someone in bed all day because the contractor has flu.”

The act is also encouraging councils to think about how they could support people after a disaster, with the result that more attention is being given to staff training.

“Local authorities are looking at that and seeing whether social workers need extra training,” says Marren. “There’s not a deadline by which everyone needs to be trained but there is an expectation that local authorities will be able to deliver services.”

In Telford and Wrekin, where Marren works, social workers have already attended a course on incident debriefing and there is further training planned on the psychological consequences of disaster. Yet although all training is to be welcomed (there is no extra money for it), there remains the problem that none now on offer is accredited and, until it is, local authority responses to emergencies will continue to vary.

Whether social workers are the best people to help in the aftermath of a disaster is another matter. Rosie Murray, a trauma training specialist, has for many years been working with local authorities to develop crisis support teams, which comprise people who have agreed to help out in an emergency. Such teams are not statutory but, as they are planned in advance, can help councils to fulfil their emergency planning duties. But even though she used to be a social worker herself – she became involved in major incidents following the Kegworth air crash in 1989 when she supported bereaved relatives through the identification process – Murray does not think that social workers are necessarily the ideal people to staff crisis support teams.

“I don’t believe that social workers are the right or best or only people to do this job,” she says. “Their social work training does not equip them to deal with major incidents. Some would be good but not all.”

Besides, there are practical issues to bear in mind. “You can’t take people out of departments and continue to provide services in the normal way,” she points out.

Ideally, crisis support teams should be managed by social services but staffed by people from a range of agencies.

She agrees that the Civil Contingencies Act has forced local authorities to formalise their policies but says working relationships – particularly between the emergency planning department and social services – need to improve. “Often, emergency planning will batter down the doors to social services and say you need to be doing this but it depends on the liaison in social services as to how much is actively taken forward. I’d like to see social services teams acknowledging what needs to be done and working in a willing rather than reluctant relationship with emergency planning.”

The act should encourage better interaction, as long as the changing shape of social services does not obstruct the process. As Roy Taylor, the Association of Directors of Social Services’ lead on civil contingency says, there is a danger that emergency planning could be overlooked. “You need someone to own it. This is one of the risks of separating adult and children’s care.”
In most departments the brunt of social care planning for civil emergencies falls to adult services.

“But I don’t want directors of children’s services not to have a full involvement,” Taylor says. “The director of adult services may carry the brief but they will need to inform and involve the director of children’s services. They will both need to know about emergency planning and ensure that social care workers from children and adult services can have a part to play.”

It is early days for the Civil Contingencies Act and too soon to make a judgement on how local authorities are measuring up to its requirements. But with some weather forecasters predicting a bitter winter plus the threat of bird flu, any authority which has neglected its duties thus far would be wise to take action now.

Social care staff can be crucial
Anne Eyre, a survivor from the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, knows just how essential social services staff can be. After the incident in which 96 people died, a help centre was set up near the football ground in Sheffield.

“I was able to call into the centre and see a social worker who just listened,” she says. The centre also helped her meet other survivors and become part of a support group.
Eyre says Hillsborough showed the importance of social services from different areas working together.

Now an independent consultant in trauma and disaster management, Eyre feels that people who work in social care are well placed to help out after major incidents.

She says: “The advantage of people in social care is that they often have sustained contact with individuals and communities and see communities before, during and after an event. They also have knowledge of vulnerable people and are used to working with individuals in crisis. If, for example, people need to be evacuated from an older people’s home they have an understanding of where else individuals could be referred to.”

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