Mark Whitehead 21 September 2017

Stepping up to the plate

It could hardly have been a more shocking episode: a suicide bomber attacking a pop concert attended largely by young people, exploding the device in the foyer of the Manchester Arena as the audience drifted out in the late evening to head for home.

For Joanne Roney, in post as chief executive of Manchester City Council for only a few months, it was a test of how well prepared the authorities were for what turned out to be the biggest and most complex emergency the city had ever dealt with.

A comprehensive multi-agency emergency plan was put into action, led by Greater Manchester Police and including council leaders in its strategic ‘gold command’ group overseeing operations. As health service professionals dealt with the victims and traumatised witnesses, a rest and family assistance centre was established within four hours of the attack.

The focus, for Ms Roney, was clear: ‘We started with a very strong emergency response which put the people and victims affected at the centre right from the start. The health service and police response was fantastic and we were able to act quickly to work with them to provide information and reassurance.’

Within 12 hours work was in progress to establish a ‘We Love Manchester’ fund and the first payouts to victims’ families were made within four days. A vigil was organised in the city centre less than 24 hours after the incident, attended by more than 3,000 people, and arrangements had to be made including organising and managing VIP visits.

In the hours and days that followed the need for reassurance that came to the fore. ‘People wanted to come together because they were shocked and outraged that young people could be attacked like that,’ says Ms Roney. ‘There was a collective outpouring of grief and it was part of our job to help people express their feelings together. We needed to be alongside our community.’

Effective communications were given high priority, with an emphasis on providing accurate, up-to-date information as the implications of the horrific event unfolded. The council’s media team worked day and night alongside senior officers to make sure its social media was kept updated and relevant.

Ms Roney stresses that every emergency incident is different and its nature will dictate the best ways of handling it. But she highlights some key points about how to deal with emergencies, all of which have been underlined by recent events.

One is that collaboration is vital. It is unlikely a single local authority will have the resources to deal with an emergency on its own and it is essential to reach out to neighbouring authorities, community groups and others for help and advice. For officers at Manchester dealing with the bomb attack, this included speaking with counterparts in other European cities who had dealt with similar events.

Ms Roney stresses the need to constantly review planning and resilience policies and to make sure all the resources that may be needed are available. Manchester emerged from the Arena attack with general praise for the way it had coped. Looking back on the awful events of May, Ms Roney believes the city council, alongside its partners and the community, did a good job overall.

Like others, she firmly underlines the need for a human approach which many have realised is so essential following this year’s tragic events. ‘It doesn’t matter how good your emergency plan is,’ she says. ‘It’s how you communicate and connect with your community that counts.’

This feature first appeared in Local Government News magazine. Please click here to sign up for your own free copy.

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