The 29th February saw the start of Europe’s largest disaster training event, Exercise Unified Response, which lasted for four days and involved over 4,000 emergency responders from across
the UK, as well as representatives from across Europe. The aim was to test international capabilities for providing mutual emergency support in the event of a catastrophic disaster. Over a year in the making, the event was designed to reflect a tower block collapsing on a bustling London tube station. The result: seven tube carriages buried in thousands of tonnes of rubble, and over 2,000 volunteers playing the roles of casualties, survivors and members of the public.
The Critical and Major Incident Psychology (CAMI) research group at the University of Liverpool (UoL) worked with emergency services throughout the planning and delivery of the event, also collecting data that will feed into an evaluation report for the European Commission. In particular, the CAMI group are providing input based on their work with participants playing the role of casualties, survivors and members of the public in order to understand and improve emergency service response to dealing effectively, sensitively and rapidly with the public. In line with CAMI expertise, feedback will also be provided regarding the joint working, communication and decision making of emergency services across the course of the event.
In addition to providing valuable emergency training, Exercise Unified Response was a unique opportunity for 17 University of Liverpool students who are studying for a Masters in Investigative and Forensic Psychology at both the Liverpool and London campuses. Having just completed a module on Policing and Emergency Response, these students were able to attend the event, observe how emergency services work together in practice to manage such large-scale disasters, and experience what it is like to collect field data in challenging environments. We find out from two of the Masters students, Darren Cook and Lydia Stoneman, what it was like to be part of the event, and how this has benefited both their studies and personal development.
What was this experience like for you and what did you value most?
Darren: “The opportunity to be part of such a large-scale incident was a real privilege. It wasn’t until we arrived on site that I acknowledged just how big the event would be. Watching the emergency services respond as quickly, and as efficiently as they did considering the little indication they had as to what type of incident awaited them was very impressive. More than being a casual observer, I particularly enjoyed playing an active role as part of the evaluation team. Being able to speak with those volunteering as victims was particularly insightful and you got the impression they had valued the experience.”
Lydia: “The experience itself allowed me to understand both the physical and mental difficulties
emergency responders experience in major incidents such as tube crashes. Being able to view the incident site while it was ‘live’ was breath taking because of how real it looked and sounded. The special effects make-up was so lifelike, when interviewing someone with a ‘bone’ sticking out or an ‘ear’ falling off this helped me to view them as a ‘casualty’ rather than just an actor. The most valuable thing I took from the experience was being able to view the complexities of a major incident in real life. It allows you to understand the uncertain environment both emergency responders and casualties are in.”
How did the MSc programme prepare you for such an experience?
Darren: “Having just completed a Policing and Emergency Response module as part of the MSc, I have begun to develop an understanding of just how complex a major incident can be. There is an understandable public tendency to hold emergency services in high regard, and as such not really consider the difficulty they may face when making decisions in a highly volatile environment. Given the incredibly realistic ‘injuries’ that had been applied to the volunteers, you got a real sense that the emergency services were automatically treating this as a genuine incident, and as such the emotions and risks they were taking would have seemed genuine. For me this highlighted the value of these sorts of training events as incredibly useful tools in preparing emergency service personnel in the event an actual incident occurs.”
Lydia: “When being taught about the dynamic environment of a major incident during the Policing and Emergency Response module, it was difficult to fully understand the degree of uncertainty involved. Being able to interview casualties during the event about their perceptions of the emergency services alerted me to the many complex decisions emergency responders must make in such a small time frame. It was useful to have prior knowledge about the complex environments emergency responders face to understand the answers the casualties gave and prompt further questions. Also, having been taught about interview techniques meant that I could apply these and have awareness of how to frame some of the questions.”
How did the experience contribute to your own professional and applied skills?
“First and foremost, it has given me first hand exposure to what a live training event looks like, and just how realistic they can be. The opportunity to play an active part in data collection has given me valuable experience in working with field data, and allowed me some much needed practice conducting interviews. Given that the data will form the bulk of my MSc dissertation project, I feel that having been on site during the data collection will give me a more in depth understanding when I come to conduct my analysis. Ultimately, the experience has fed an interest to be apart of similar projects in the future and to forge a career working within policing and major incident contexts. This is something I am now actively pursuing via a successful PhD application.”
Lydia: “Before Unified Response, I had no prior experience of interviewing. Being able to develop my interviewing skills in an applied setting was a great opportunity. In addition, being part of a training event of that size and representing the University of Liverpool was a fantastic experience. I got to speak to a number of professionals within the emergency services and find out what their roles involved. Without being part of Unified Response, I would not have had this opportunity.”
Further details about Exercise Unified Response can be found here.
Further details about CAMI can be found here.