Published On: July 11, 2023

In this article, NPC Commissioner and Assistant Chief Constable, Owen Weatherill, discusses the importance of effective coordination and leadership in responding to emergencies, crises, and disasters in the  context of the Gold, Silver, and Bronze command structure, commonly adopted by frontline response agencies. With the ongoing challenges faced by emergency services, local agencies, and government departments in responding to crises, existing integrated training frameworks provide a solid foundation. Extending this integrated training to Silver and Bronze levels of command, would equip more leaders to work together effectively to manage future emergencies.

When emergencies, crises or disasters strike, the response will necessarily draw upon the skills, expertise and resources of emergency services and a range of local agencies. The nature of the event will determine exactly which agencies are involved; but it will rarely, if ever, be managed by one agency alone. How effectively those agencies come together to respond to the event is therefore crucial.

Planning and preparing for possible scenarios and emergencies is a core function of Local Resilience Forums (LRFs) and they are a vital element of preparing for how a local resilience “system” comes together when needed. This can and must be done for likely and foreseeable risks and emergencies, but it is not possible to plan for every eventuality.

However, it is possible to effectively train and equip the leaders responsible for managing the events that do occur. Such training becomes even more crucial for responding to emergencies and disasters, which are often spontaneous and with little, if any, notice.

Indeed, the effectiveness of command structures in always a keen focus of public inquiries. Both the Grenfell and Manchester Arena public inquiries paid close attention to how effective such leadership was. Their findings have generated a series of recommendations that all agencies should have regard to.

The Bronze, Silver and Gold command structure

In the context of assisting common understanding of roles and responsibilities in an operational response, most frontline response agencies have adopted the Gold, Silver and Bronze command principles that have been in use for several years.

Gold command has overarching strategic leadership and will set the strategic objectives of a response. The tactical response is led by Silver commanders who develop a plan to achieve the strategic objectives. Bronze commanders lead the operational deployment of resources on the ground. Each agency will have its own internal structure.

Given the range of different skills areas in each agency, leadership and command training is often necessarily agency-specific. However, each emergency service draws heavily on JESIP (Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Principles) for training staff. This ensures that a common framework and language is used to convey time critical information about an emergency, to ensure an efficient and common understanding of the issues to be managed and the threats posed.

Where this differs notably, is at the strategic or Gold command level. For any multi-agency response to be truly effective, it must involve all agencies affected from the earliest point possible. In reality, this usually means that a Local Resilience Forum will set up a Strategic Coordinating Group (SCG), bringing together Gold commanders from each organisation directly involved in the response.

The SCG will set the multi-agency strategy and objectives for responding to any given emergency. They will ensure that the different agencies’ plans and operational responses align to meet the overarching demands of the emergency, and most importantly the needs of the local communities.

Below the SCG, there will usually be a Tactical Coordination Group (TCG) where the Silver commanders from each agency will work together to bring the SCG strategy and objectives to life, through agency specific plans and workstreams.

Multi-agency Gold training

The UK emergency services uses the Multi Agency Gold Incident Command course, (known as the MAGIC course) to train its senior leaders to be prepared to operate as a Gold commander in this type of environment.

Delivered by the College of Policing of behalf of the Police service, the Fire and Rescue Service and the National Ambulance Resilience Unit, the course evolves to meet current needs. Course cohorts are drawn from across agencies to encourage networking and rich professional discussion and learning, to equip senior leaders to better understand each other’s operating environments, and to enable them to operate effectively in a SCG.

Course attendees are far wider than the three primary emergency services. Reflecting the diverse range of stakeholders in an emergency, as well as the range of challenges which might be met, attendees frequently include NHS trusts, the coastguard, local councils, military, the Environment Agency, as well as senior officials from across government departments.

With a keen focus on learning from past events, the course content is constantly refreshed and draws on analysing the effectiveness of previous multi-agency responses. Public inquiry findings and recommendations feature strongly to ensure that learning and recommendations are understood, acted upon and embedded in the training of future senior leaders.

There has been a step change in organisational awareness and engagement in the need for broadening this training over the last few years. The number of training courses has dramatically increased to meet demand, with additional bespoke tailored courses developed to meet specific needs, for example:

  • Additional shorter “MAGIC Lite” courses delivered to provide awareness for emerging senior leaders, as well as a refresher for more experienced leaders.
  • Reflecting the unique environment of devolution in Wales, a “Wales Gold” course delivers the MAGIC principles for Wales.
  • More recently, a range of leaders from a number of the British Overseas Territories islands have attended the UK course. This in turn has generated strong interest in a course tailored to the needs of the British Overseas Territories.

Whilst the British Overseas Territories share similar governance characteristics to Wales, Scotland and Northern Island, as devolved nations with locally elected governments, they differ in size and scale of local capabilities. Effective multi-agency response to emergencies is therefore even more vital in a small island nation context.

To meet this need, a regional MAGIC workshop was held in the Caribbean region in 2022, which saw attendance from six of the British Overseas Territories islands. This has now developed into a bespoke course suited to small island nations. The first island-specific MAGIC course was delivered in Bermuda in March 2023, with positive engagement from agencies including all emergency services, the health service, prison service, airport authority, military, government, ministers and the governor’s office. There is now a demand to deliver this approach across other British Overseas Territories, which is encouraging to see.

Looking to the future

Our emergency services, local agencies and government departments will continue to face challenging events which demand an effective and co-ordinated response. And the communities they serve, rightly expect and demand that they respond swiftly and effectively when the need arises.

Notwithstanding the existing training environment, public inquiries continue to find that the initial response to an emergency could have been more effective. So, the question remains, what more can we do to better prepare our leaders?

The existing framework of command principles, training, as well multi-agency response under the umbrella of Local Resilience Forums and JESIP principles, provides a sound foundation from which to build further. But ultimately, it is leadership capabilities and how effectively they are deployed that will define the response.

The multi-agency training at Gold command level has provided more robust command capability and better inter-agency understanding of capabilities and limitations.  Any leader performing an on-call Gold command function or being asked to step into a multi-agency response must have that training and awareness.

But there is also a clear opportunity to replicate this integrated training at the lower levels of command for Silver and Bronze command levels, in a more consistent way. This would undoubtedly enhance the abilities of these command levels, enabling them to work more effectively together when an emergency demands it. This is particularly relevant within the TCG environment, where the multi-agency tactical response will be driven.

We must therefore continue to invest time in properly equipping our leaders to be able to meet those challenges. And the training they do receive, must continually adapt to reflect the ever-changing environment that we require leaders in every agency to operate in, when emergencies, disasters or a crisis does strike.

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