Security Correspondent Dr Dave Sloggett argues that the current review of JESIP is timely and affords an opportunity for a re-appraisal of its principles in the light of lessons learnt from recent events
The origin of the idea that those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it is sometimes attributed to Edmund Burke, the 18th century Irish statesman and economist. In reality it was first proposed by George Santayana, the Spanish philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist. Burke is perhaps better known for his observation that “the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”. It is a point that still chimes with many people today – the implication being that evil is a part of the mindset of mankind and that is must always be challenged.
Winston Churchill also paraphrased Santayana in a speech he gave to the House of Commons in 1948. His slight variation was that those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it. The emphasis here being on learning lessons from history, not just knowing it as Santayana suggested.
Going back in time, similar ideas have been suggested by Confucius when he suggested that mankind should “study the past if you wish to define the future”. It is a point echoed by American President Roosevelt when he noted that “the more you know the past, the better prepared you are for the future”.
These ideas convey a simple point. The past defines a context in which things we do today and tomorrow are set. In the unforgiving age of social media, where actions are placed under the microscope of personal opinion, the nature of the lens through which the past is seen is important.
If the lens is convex, what is seen is the dispersal of history, removing clarity as to what is being seen. It is hard to judge any value from history when it is presented in such a diverse way. If, however, the lens is concave, history is focused to a point and a finely honed view of history appears that can be beneficial to those who wish to follow Winston Churchill’s lead and learn important lessons.
From this it is possible to take an important step. Resilient societies, such as that which we should aspire to if we are to keep evil at bay, have to be capable of learning lessons, of accepting where things have gone wrong and addressing them. Importantly, we must also recognise that to learn lessons that requires actions that inculcate these lessons into the deep psyche of organisations; overcoming natural cultural resistance to change and using the mantra, if it works do not fix it.
Paying lip service to lessons that should be learnt risks public opprobrium when yet another public inquiry concludes that the problems with dealing with an event arose due to communications difficulties. In an era where 5G technologies are giving us the ability to stream live video from an incident and also analyse it in real time, such notions have to become things of the past.
This has dramatic conclusions for those in command of organisations such as the emergency services. Whereas in the past the refrain that “communications difficulties” was an option that could be used to explain indecision and command inertia, the public will not buy that any more. This is a lesson from history that has to be learnt.
That explanation, last used in the Coroner’s Inquiry into the death of the people killed in the terrorist attack on London Bridge and in Borough Market, should be the last time it is given air time. No commander can afford to allow that to be their go-to stock phrase any more.
This is a big step. In the first few minutes of any terrorist attack, confusion will inevitably loom large. Uncertainty will stalk the minds of those with limited operational experience of ever having to deal with something of this magnitude, creating hesitation and inertia.
Committing colleagues and friends into what appears to be a chaotic and dynamically unfolding situation is difficult. That, however, is the nature of the world we live in. For the Fire and Rescue Service mitigating risk by constant practise on the fire ground is no longer enough. Risk mitigation has to be seen through a much wider concave lens to bring clarity to the decision-making processes.
Whilst the national roll-out of the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Protocol (JESIP) was achieved with remarkable speed – along with the central idea of the METHANE message and the centrality of the decision model – that cannot be the end of it.
The recent consultation process looking to update the JESIP ideas is appropriate and right. But this should not just become a review that seeks to reenforce the obvious inherent weakness of the whole concept. This occurs in step two of the process; assess risks and develop a joint working strategy.
Quoting the JESIP online guide on the decision-making that takes place in this second stage illustrates the problem. The second stage of the JDM prompts commanders to ensure they have reviewed and understood all risks so that appropriate control measures can be put in place. Understanding risk is central to emergency response. One of the major challenges in successful joint emergency response is for responders to build and maintain a common understanding of the full range of risks, and the way that those risks may be increased or controlled by decisions made and actions taken by the emergency responders.
While these words are fine in principle, in practice they are a charter for indecision and inertia. The twin fallings of command that see innocent members of the public die when faster intervention may have saved their lives. How can anyone assess dynamic risks in the crucial golden hour?
The current words in the JESIP model are a muddle and are vastly open to interpretation by those in command. In effect they are worthless as they have no basis in human decision-making. Fundamentally, they fail to understand that the mantra of joint situational awareness is simply not possible in the time that people’s lives are ebbing away.
The foundations of JESIP are ill-formed. There is not enough knowledge and awareness of what has happened in past terrorist incidences that has been inculcated into current decision makers to enable them to function under pressure and to create joint situational awareness. This is something that the fire and rescue services have already experienced. Their failure to learn from history is worrying. Dynamic risk assessment, whilst it took ages for any kind of common understanding of what it meant to be formed across the whole of the Fire and Rescue Service, is not something that can be carried out quickly enough.
As the Coroner of the London Bridge and Borough Market attack concluded, a faster response may well have seen two of the people that died have a vastly different medical outcome. Given this it is hard not to conclude that JESIP needs updating and quickly. This is beginning to be recognised. A note on the government website says further work on joint risk assessment is being considered in the first review of the joint doctrine.
This is to be welcomed. But will it create the basis for change? Or will the review simply ignore the major issues that lie at the heart of the application of the model, that those in command need to be empowered to take command when a situation is evolving quickly?
That requires changes across the organisation. At the top, where major incident commanders must be able to pre-delegate decision-making to people, they are asking to go in harm’s way and must back them when things inevitably go awry.
In this regard lessons can be learnt from the military world. JESIP has already drawn on the military model of decision-making developed as a result of the work of Colonel John Boyd in the Korean War. The so-called Observe, Orient, Decide and Act (OODA) model is taught to every military commander. It is a part of their lexicon.
The parallels with the JESIP decision model are clear. The only marked difference in the JESIP model is the addition of the third stage: consider powers, policies and procedures. This is another step in the Decision Model that leads to indecision and command inertia.
This step needs to be removed. Commanders should not need to consider their powers, policies and procedures in the middle of an incident. They should know them. They should not be there if they do not know them and have discussed the moral dilemmas associated with them. Resilience is all about preparation. In asking our commanders to consider these factors we are asking them to debate them in real time. That cannot lead to a situation where a response is timely.
We in the Fire Knowledge Network, as anyone reading this might expect, focus on the idea of creating knowledge that is contemporary and reflects current challenges being faced by the fire and rescue services and their wider colleagues in the emergency services community. Creating that knowledge and making it useful for those who go into harm’s way has to involve questioning current practises and processes. If a national decision model is simply a way to inculcate an environment in people where they can avoid making decisions, that is a monumental failure. And one that will cost lives when the current respite in terror attacks inevitably undergoes an upturn.
While some may wish to question the accuracy of this view those who share it will have looked at developments in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and in the Sahel. International terrorism is not defeated. It is just adapting and creating a basis for re-launching mass murder onto the streets of the UK and the wider world. The current relatively quiet period is the time, with some sense of haste, to debate what lessons should be learnt from the first implementation of JESIP.
Making it simpler to understand, easy to implement and based on the premise that shared situational assessment is a nirvana that can never be achieved in real-time would be a start. That is the way that history can avoid repeating itself and the emergency services can move on from the idea that their response was hindered by communications difficulties. Achieving this requires a forensic examination of the past through a concave lens. That will give the focus required for real progress to be made on how JESIP can be improved. As its stands, as a basis for preparing and planning a response to a major terrorist incident, it is not fit for purpose.