Listening to those little voices


Incident Managers, are you hearing voices in your head?
It could be your Tac Advisor.

When I began my new life as an Emergency Planning Officer one of the initiatives I was keen to introduce was that of the role of the Tactical or ‘Tac’ Advisor, something borrowed from the police and effectively being someone with specific detailed knowledge to offer tactical options and advice to their senior commander during serious incidents. Often deployed in public order settings, the Tac Advisor has the experience and specific training to advise on the options and tactics available, allowing their commander to make informed decisions.

In the 1960’s and 70’s (and well before the Civil Contingencies Act) the EPO, often a team of one within even the largest local authorities, had been more concerned with the possible onset of nuclear war than civil emergencies.   It was not until the late 1970’s that progressive authorities like Coventry pushed for a release from the legislative requirements of ‘war planning’ to a more realistic emphasis on addressing the needs of the civil community from more likely emergency scenarios, whether natural or man-made.

Even until the mid-2000’s the EPO was more likely to have the role of opening and running a rest centre, effectively taking them out of the equation as far as being anywhere else was concerned.  Now, with the embedding of multi-agency working and the JESIP principals more recently we know that there is a far more pressing need for our presence elsewhere. For example (and not an exhaustive list) being the Incident Coordination Officer at the scene of the incident, being at a Strategic Coordination Centre (either as the representative, or the Tac Advisor to a more senior officer), at a Tactical Coordination Centre, at the multi-agency Event Control Suite in Birmingham, at any of the three LA’s Strategic or Tactical groups or cells, or perhaps the Tac Advisor to our incident lead who could be the Chief Executive or Deputy, or even in the worst case scenario, as a Tac Advisor to the setting up of an emergency mortuary.

The fact is that we in the Resilience Team are the subject matter experts for all things ‘emergency planning’. Yes we have our own specific work streams however we are all best placed to offer a variety of advice, and the response options, available in the response to an emergency. Hence the introduction of the role of Tac Advisor to be used in whatever emergency scenario, and to whoever may need that advice, and at whatever location.

The Tac Advisor is therefore that voice in your ear.  Admittedly there is nothing to say that the person we are advising doesn’t have the tools themselves, but ‘Emergency Planning’ can be a daunting subject area, and with some very technical specialities.

After starting this blog an incident I had forgotten about came into my thoughts. A few years ago (in another life) I was standing in the rear yard of one of Coventry’s local police stations watching a prison van trying to negotiate the jumble of cars that always packed the car park (parking was a premium, particularly at shift change over when there were often double the number of staff on-site).  You’ll know the type of van I mean if you think of news bulletins on TV where they show a gaggle of photographers outside a court building, and when it leaves there is a flurry of activity with reporters and photographers running up to the van as it drives off, holding their cameras up in an attempt (pretty hopeless in reality) of getting a picture of the forlorn prisoner sat inside.

The inside of these vans are usually divided into a number of small compartments, one prisoner in each so that on arrival at their destination, in this case the police cell block, each one can be escorted into the building safely, and in turn.  To minimise any chance that one of the prisoners may make a sudden bid for freedom the practice was always to reverse the van right up to the external cell-block door, and when I say right up I mean around 6” from the wall so that there wasn’t a big enough gap for a prisoner to try to run off, as the van door and building door were nearly touching.  Imagine the docking doors of two space ships lining up and locking together, you get the picture.

The only trouble was that you had to be very careful reversing, and the driver’s assistant always acted as a ‘Banksman’ standing to one side, calling back the slowly reversing vehicle.  The driver would be waiting for a shout from their assistant to say that he had gone back far enough.

I watched the van as it slowly reversed towards the door, initially from about three lengths of the van away, but slowly getting closer and close, ……. and closer, and kept going, then a loud thud as it hit the wall and stopped.  As the yard sits in a quadrant area with that particular door at the bottom of four storeys of offices, quite a few members of staff came to their windows to see what had happened.  The driver had listen to someone guiding him back, it hadn’t been his assistant on that journey as he suddenly emerged from the cell block shouting that he wasn’t ready for him to reverse yet. So who was it? But more of that later.

We all have those little voices in our head that guide us in our thinking and actions, it can be both the voice of caution and also the opposite, the little voice that tells us to take risks, to go that little bit further. Guy Martin, the TT motorcyclist turned TV presenter, calls his voice ‘Brian the Monkey’, who sits on his shoulder and whispers in his ear “faster, faster, don’t worry, it’ll be ok, you won’t fall off”. But he also knows that when Brian’s talking he has to just take the time to think again, you can’t always trust Brian. I’ve decided to call my voice ‘Brian’ now, as a sort of tribute to Guy.

The racing driver Juan Fangio was famous for pushing the boundaries, but listened to his voice of reason, once famously saying that “the crazy driver ends up in the cemetery”.  One of his stories I remember well was of a particular race where he was pushing hard for the lead but some distance away from the leader.  Approaching a bridge on the course, which disappeared from sight on the other side, he would normally have approached the rise at speed as he knew the track well.

But then he heard his voice of reason, something he couldn’t put his finger on but was telling him to slow right down. When he took the rise much more slowly than normal he saw that there was a major crash on the other side, it had only just happened so the warning flags hadn’t yet been deployed.  If he hadn’t listened to his voice he would have taken the rise at speed and would have been unable to stop in time.

After the race he wondered why he had acted the way he did, there was no logic to it. Later that night, unable to sleep, he went over and over the incident.  And then it occurred to him.  He was the great Juan Fangio who the crowds had come to see, and was used to the crowd turning to watch him pass. But when he approached the rise he had subconsciously noted that the crowd weren’t looking at him, but the other side of the bridge.  Through his training and experience his little voice was telling him that something was wrong, although he didn’t realise at the time.

And the police van that crashed into the wall?  You may have already guessed that it was one of the prisoners in the back of the van who had been on that journey many times and decided that it might be hilarious if he pretended to sound as if he was one of the driver’s colleagues guiding him back. Hopefully though, as Tac Advisors during an incident, commanders can have more confidence in our advice.

By Dave Whittle, CSW Resilience Officer