International Security Expo: Exercising contingency plans

Ahead of the International Security Expo, Counter Terror Business talks to Brian Dillon, managing director of Rubicon Resilience Limited, about the importance of crisis management planning and staying in step with contemporary threats

You are speaking this year in the Protecting Crowded Places stream of the International Security Expo. What can we expect you to discuss in your session?

I’m going to be presenting on simulating chaos and how to stress test contingency and crisis plans. For me the emphasis is on developing confidence so that those who have to respond in extreme circumstances do so in a manner that is likely to prove effective. Post event debriefs and after-action reports continually emphasise the benefit in exercising contingency plans but many people have experienced weak exercises which fail to live up to the initial promise.

We know that the golden hour of the initial response is essential in setting the tone and tempo of incident management and this is applicable in terrorist situations as much as civil emergencies. So, I’m also going to look at how to maximise the investment of time and resources when planning an exercise.

Your consultancy firm, Rubicon Resilience, draws on experience in crisis management. How important is interoperability and effective partnerships in combatting terrorism in the UK?

It’s encouraging that the government’s latest review of CONTEST has recognised the importance of close working with industry and in practice there are some very positive collaborative initiatives led by NaCTSO and CPNI. Operationally, interoperability is the lifeblood of successful incident management and that can only come about through meaningful partnerships. One aspect which I think we’ll see more of is security firms improving their compatibility with the emergency services, particularly in large areas that are privately owned and accessible by the public. In these locations there is a need to have a degree of effective interoperable arrangements because this enhances safety and improves the response. There’s certainly some good examples of this already in the UK and I see this developing further.     

What is the best way for organisations to test assumptions, identify vulnerabilities and develop management teams in preparation for the unlikely event of an attack?

In the wake of last year’s attacks a number of organisations looked to refine and evaluate their contingency plans which was sensible but if a test hasn’t taken place for some time, if at all, it can be useful to start on small scale scenarios before looking at extreme threat situations. More generally it’s important to base all contingency planning on an informed threat assessment and from there define roles and responsibilities which should form the basis of training for key personnel. There’s little point in doing any exercising without these basic building blocks in place.

It’s also essential to pitch a test at the right level and to understand what success looks like. Exercising should create safe learning environments where plans and people can be stress tested. I always aim to simulate realism to develop people’s confidence so they’re able to operate dynamically and flexibly – real world events will never entirely match any exercise scenario so you need people who can think and make decisions, not simply follow a script because that rarely delivers optimum performance.    

You also have experience in developing strategies to deal with armed attacks from your time with New Scotland Yard’s Specialist Firearms Command. Although vehicular terrorism appears to be the method of choice for current ISIS-inspired attacks, how prepared are UK security and police forces for a firearms attack?

Last year’s grotesque terrorist attacks in the UK thrust armed policing into the spotlight and they were not found wanting: courageous, swift and highly effective in their response. To those familiar with the subject this was not a surprise; strategy and tactics have adapted to stay in step with the contemporary threat. An extraordinary amount of hard work has gone into developing this and the UK armed policing model is at a very high standard. But although armed policing is generally at the sharp end of the response – intervention and resolution - it operates in a wider counter-terrorism landscape.

Clearly, 2017 was a year of exceptional demand and inevitably that will have led to some refinements in practice and procedure. I think we’ve seen the authorities keep pace with the threat and they’ve produced some extremely successful results as numerous  convictions demonstrate. Nevertheless, there seems to be no sign yet of the threat diminishing and in whatever way it manifests I’m confident that the police and security services will be prepared.

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