Yesterday two interesting things happened. First of all there was a loud ‘explosion’ heard across Coventry. Shortly afterwards we began to receive calls asking what it was. This made me think, when something odd happens why do people think first of all to call the police and secondly, how do they think we’ll know what’s going on?
To start off with I do not mean to criticise anyone who did phone us – a loud explosion is exactly the sort of thing we need to know about and the quicker we are aware, the quicker we can respond.
What I’m curious about is what makes people think that the authorities do know what’s going on at all times? I’m curious because being part of those authorities, I know that it’s not always the case that we do.
Take yesterday’s incident as an example – we would have received calls from across a wide region informing us that a large bang had just been heard. We know now that it was actually a sonic boom but at the time we’d have no way of knowing this. The information we would have to work on is that somewhere something has produced a loud enough thunder crack to concern a great number of people.
What could it be though? Put simply, beyond waiting for a call from a panicked site manager or someone similar to say that his fuel storage depot has gone up in flames, understandably we’d be struggling to join the dots.
I think before joining the police I had the same impression of the emergency services and the authorities – whatever the situation there’d be an expert and a plan. Raining fish? We’d know what the cause was and where they’d come from. UFO landing on the roof of the New Art Gallery? NORAD would be on the line for an update.
Truth be told, it’s not really like this. We have to work with limited, sometimes patchy information and are often required to improvise solutions on the spot. As so much of our work can’t be predicted, we can only prepare in a general sense.
I know, for example, that we have plans in place should we need to evacuate town centres and have arrangements with the council to commandeer facilities should we need them as aid stations but such arrangements only represent the first steps of dealing with a major incident.
Likewise with our human resources, we have on call around the clock hostage negotiators, NBC trained officers and others trained with all sorts of weird and wonderful skills. As to who gets called and where they get sent when a tornado whips through Tipton, it’s very much up to the senior officers in the control rooms to get a grip of the situation and call the shots.
Coming back to Coventry, even were some quick thinking control room staff member to have made an enquiry with the the MOD, I imagine there’d likely be a delay in the information filtering through. Unlike the shock wave, information that fighters have been scrambled will not spread quickly within the MOD itself with there almost certainly being a long delay before it reaches their press office and then out into the public domain.
I guess part of the perception that we are in a position to deal with any emergency comes from the fact that as an emergency service, we have lots of experience in dealing with said emergencies and so we become practiced at doing so. Some people may not know what to do after a car crash or what to turn when their house is flooding – we do because we deal with similar calls all the time.
Another explanation is that it’s reassuring to think that there’s always someone who knows what’s going on. I’m as much of this mindset as anyone else, even though I do represent ‘the man’ and should know better. I’m happy to assume that brainy government scientists have a plan and a cure for the latest outbreak of the Ebola Virus and that when the machines become self-aware, there are stop checks in place to ensure that I don’t have to spend the rest of my life dodging Terminators amongst the ruins of Walsall.
The problem of not always having the answers to hand aside, what’s important is that we are able to take steps to collate information and reassure the public who have been calling asking the same questions that we’re likely to be asking ourselves. We don’t have all the answers, but then who does?
P.S. I had an interesting chat with some of my followers on Twitter last night about what had caused the boom. They were less convinced by the MOD’s claim that it was a RAF Typhoon doing their own version of a police ‘immediate’ response. Popular theories involved UFOs and Elvis. My own thoughts are that if it was a MOD cover up, it was probably a top secret test for the Aurora Spy Plane – the truth is out there, people!