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Responding to the Grenfell Tower Fire

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Watching the horrific scenes of the recent fire at Grenfell Tower in London, it was impossible to imagine the full extent of the human tragedy that night. Those affected by the fire have been through unimaginable trauma and many survivors will never fully recover. In terms of loss of life, it’s been said that this was the biggest disaster that has hit this country since Hillsborough and a scale of fire that hasn’t been seen since the Second World War. It should never have happened.

In the days following the fire, a call for volunteers to help with the response effort was put out across the Civil Service. I immediately realised that whilst it would undoubtedly be difficult, it would also be an incredibly interesting and worthwhile thing to do. I offered my help and almost immediately went off on secondment to the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).

DCLG has responsibility for emergency preparedness in England, and for the central government response to particular emergencies. There is a small team within DCLG called the Resilience and Emergencies Division (RED) which operates a 24/7 government liaison service to local responders. Where the scale or complexity of an incident is such that some degree of central government co-ordination or support becomes necessary, RED staff are deployed and become the single point of contact between the local response effort and central government.

Sadly, it has been a very busy time for RED, with a number of terrorism incidents and cyber attacks in the weeks and months preceding Grenfell.

I was deployed to RED and my first day started just like any new job. My cross-government pass didn’t work on the door, so I was late for the morning meeting. Stumbling into the secure briefing room, I soon regretted not bringing anything to write on as I was going to have to pick up a lot of information quickly. I was given a laptop and a copy of the Emergency Response Plan, though any induction was curtailed when the Prime Minister paid us a visit. The Secretary of State told the PM about the call he’d received from a RED duty officer that night, giving him the first news of the unfolding tragedy.

The next day I was sent over to the Grenfell response team – known as Gold Command. Gold Command was convened by government in the aftermath of the fire to coordinate the response effort. Led by John Barradell, the Chief Executive of the City of London, Gold Command brings together local government, the voluntary sector, police, health and fire services, into a single command and control structure. My job was to keep Gold Command connected to central government, liaising between the recovery effort on the ground and Whitehall, including the PM chaired ‘COBRA’ meetings.

Everyone was doing extremely long hours (breakfast, lunch and dinner were all brought to the office) and some didn’t have a weekend for five weeks.

Despite the chaos and the emotionally charged situation, working as a government liaison officer during an emergency is essentially about two things which are very familiar to us in the Government Statistical Service (GSS): information and people. Finding out who can help you answer a question, building good relationships with them, and making sure you’ve passed on the right information to those people who need your help. That is how to unlock problems, whether it’s about getting vital humanitarian assistance to those in need, or ensuring Ministers are fully briefed on the developing situation.

Top tip if you are ever in a situation like this – keep a list of the names of all the helpful people you meet. It will become your most useful resource. There are so many people involved in a recovery effort on this scale and my list reached 60 names within three days.

It’s no surprise that a great deal of the information going back and forth is numerical. Here are just some of the questions which are asked each day:

  • How many people were in the tower? How many got out? How many are in hospital?
  • How many homes were permanently destroyed? How many other homes in the immediate area are affected?
  • How many households need to be re-housed? Why is the number of households so much larger than the number of flats there were in the building?
  • How many offers of temporary accommodation have been made so far? How many families have accepted these offers? How many have been re-housed so far?
  • How many free Oyster cards have been distributed? How many passports?
  • How many families have been allocated a keyworker? How many keyworkers are there? What is their average caseload?
  • How many people have accessed the specialist mental health services which have been offered?
  • How much financial support has been paid out? How many families are eligible and how many have claimed?

To make matters even more complex, the answers to many of these questions change every hour, and we needed to provide a clear picture of the situation at least once a day. In an emergency situation there are various partial and conflicting sources of information. Rumours and misinformation can cause panic. Maintaining what’s known as a ‘Commonly Recognised Information Picture’ (CRIP) which contains the key facts and figures is very important.

At the same time, Ministers have an insatiable demand for detailed statistics on every aspect of the situation. Meeting these demands can place a burden on those delivering services on the ground. So it is important to challenge some requests and develop a fuller understanding of what data would be most helpful. By doing this we can shed more light on the situation and help guide key decisions, while minimising detraction from the local response effort.

At times we have been able to draw on analytical help from colleagues across the GSS. For example, to help reconcile different datasets on housing, or to provide a network analysis of the key community groups by looking at social media data. The willingness and speed of GSS colleagues lending their professional insight and advice has been nothing short of amazing.

Analytical support has been one part of a huge cross-government effort. Other departments who have stepped in include the Surge response team of apprentices who helped set up a Victim Support Unit; DWP who provided benefits payment experts; DfT who provided two people per day from their emergency response team; and a host of other departments who provided on the ground advice on everything from immigration to education and health. I even met some colleagues who were making a daily trip from the DVLA in Swansea to help residents reapply for driving licences lost in the fire.

I’ve been incredibly impressed by so many of the people I met over the last few weeks. While lessons will be learned from this, the way that teams from across government came together to help was brilliant. I was glad to do my bit and I am very grateful to my colleagues in the Central Policy Secretariat for covering for me in my absence.

Joe Cuddeford, Head of Secretariat, Central Policy Secretariat