Exercise Unified Response replicated the aftermath of a tower block falling into Waterloo Station
The disaster training exercise took place at four sites, with the primary location
being a disused power station in Kent (Image credit: London Fire Brigade)

Europe's biggest-ever disaster simulation provided a test to evaluate London’s ability to "detect, prevent and if necessary to withstand, handle and recover from disruptive challenges." Exercise Unified Response replicated the aftermath of a tower block falling into Waterloo Station, a transport hub on the south bank of the Thames used by 98 million passengers a year. The exercise took place at four sites with the primary location being a disused power station in Kent.

Testing emergency practices at Waterloo Station

Waterloo is both a mainline and underground “metro” station that had been chosen so that first-responders would have to deal with the combination of derailed trains, cramped dark conditions and live electric rails. The exercise worked from the simple premise that during a refurbishment the tower block had collapsed. There was no consideration of terrorist activity as a factor, and the goal was to test emergency practices on a large scale.

Rescue teams from the UK, Italy, France, Hungary and Germany would have had many options, and the exercise sought to test technology as well as protocols and human processes. Four thousand people took part in total with hundreds of medical students from the London teaching hospitals playing dead or simulating being trapped in the mocked-up tube station.

Security technology to the rescue

So what types of equipment could have saved lives had the incident been for real with mass casualties among the tonnes of rubble? A crucial resource may have been thermal imaging cameras which display body heat. Other methods would include use of microwave radiation which can alert rescuers to a heartbeat even through several metres of concrete. Bodies are illuminated by a microwave beam, and the chest movements of those still breathing alters the reflected wave. Ultra-wideband radar is also used, with both methods relying on the regularity of breathing which makes it stand out from background noise and clutter components.

SCADA and similar process control would have been crucial in giving rescuers information about air quality and explosive hazards
Thermal cameras, microwave radiation and ultra-wideband radar would be crucial
equipment to save lives in this emergency scenario (Image credit: London Fire Brigade)

Identification of the deceased

The exercise strived for authenticity and didn’t shrink from details such as identification of the dead and setting up a mortuary. Seven tube carriages were taken to the main site near the Dartford river crossing. The station infrastructure was deliberately crushed by construction equipment, and the trains filled with bloodied commuters both living and dead. Disaster victim identification teams from many UK police constabularies provided officers to work alongside other forensic specialists.

Exercise organisers threw every conceivable combination of complex needs at responders. Emergency workers picked their way through the carnage and treated realistic trauma injuries with the procedures, even including mimicking of on-scene amputations. Unusual requirements at the refuge areas included train passengers separated from vital medication and a serviceman relapsing into post-traumatic stress disorder.

Role of PSIM

In terms of testing security technology and assessing whether it gave emergency managers optimum information, the performance of PSIM and similar platforms would be crucial. With many sub-systems likely to fail after the collapse of the tower block, exercise organisers would have been looking to simulate failover provision, field-testing it in conditions more akin to a disaster than will ever be encountered barring the real thing. Help points, public address and voice alarm (PA/VA) and passenger information displays would all have been scrutinised. SCADA and similar process control would have been crucial in giving rescuers information about air quality and explosive hazards.

Staying at the macro level, emergency services are now exploiting mass notification systems in order to oversee crisis data. Software of this kind also analyses microblogging services such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to isolate tactically important information posted by civilians at the scene and distinguish it from messages expressing general empathy.

About Exercise Unified Response

Exercise Unified Response was organised as part of the London Assembly's resilience partnership strategy. It saw 70 partner agencies working alongside each other with the UK government’s COBRA committee being a main participant. An incident command room was set up with emergency supervisors making crucial decisions about which resources should be despatched as the scenario unfolded.

The £770,000 operation was funded by the European Union. It involved police and emergency workers from four EU countries plus of course the host nation which will decide on June 23 (the last day of IFSEC) whether to remain in the Union. An “out result would hardly mean the end of this kind of European security co-operation which (largely through Interpol) pre-dates the EU but member states would surely become less enthusiastic about working with the UK.

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Author profile

Jeremy Malies European Correspondent, SourceSecurity.com

Jeremy Malies is a veteran marketeer and writer specialising in the physical security sector which he has covered for 20 years. He has specific interests in video analytics, video management, perimeter intrusion and access control.

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