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Emergency communication lessons from the Plymouth bomb

By Ellie Firth, Strategic Communication Lead for Plymouth City Council

Last month saw the biggest peacetime evacuation the UK has seen since WW2, when a live WW2 bomb was found in Plymouth. While all councils regularly test civil protection plans, few have to put plans into practice on such a large scale, so we want to share our communications experience.

Following the activation of the Council’s emergency response arrangements – involving over 30 organisations in a multi-agency Coordinating Group (SCG) and Tactical Coordinating Group (TCG) we set-up the Warning and Informing cell. This had communication representatives from organisations across the region – from the Police, Fire Service, Army, Navy, NHS, hospital, voluntary sector and neighbouring councils.

Over the first few hours the operation grew in scale, with an initial 200 metre cordon being extended to over 300 metres resulting in the evacuation of over 3,250 residents. From a communications perspective our role was clear. We had to communicate what was happening, why, what people needed to do and importantly where could people go if they needed support. We needed to use our resources wisely – making sure there was a talking head to represent the Council, we needed to consider comms resource for the rest centres, in the office taking media enquiries and fielding them out, updating the web pages, responding to enquiries on social media and attending many hours of meetings.

We immediately set up an online hub for information. The official place for residents (and staff) to get ‘the truth’. In the first few hours the rumour mill online was in overdrive. We regularly provided updates, address myths and ensure we are always looking ahead. What is going to happen next?

Within the first two days, whilst the bomb experts were still trying to determine how best to dispose of the device, we committed to putting out updates hourly. This included, getting updates from rest centres with images, understanding the top themes coming into the emergency helpline, overseeing dozens of media interview requests and media enquiries. Keeping that machine alive was quite difficult – particularly as people wanted to know ‘what happens next’?

The next day brought worrying news. The bomb disposal experts informed us they did not think that they could safely detonate the device without catastrophic damage to at least four houses, with serious damage to many more homes. It wasn’t looking good. From a communications perspective we started thinking ahead, considering messaging / strategy and most importantly resource for the team.

At 11pm on Thursday night the experts proposed another option. They could move the bomb, but they would need an extended cordon surrounding the route. Overnight, council officers with key agencies worked solidly on an action plan to evacuate an additional 7,070 people from 2pm to 5pm the next day.

We put together a Communications strategy to support the evacuation. This included the media announcement, web copy, social media, e-newsletter update, on the ground fact sheet for volunteers to be handing out, update for those at the rest centre, partner communications, staff updates, member updates and of course using the Government’s Emergency Alert system, the first time it was used since the original test-run last year. The plan was finished by 6am and approved by 11am. We had 3 hours to clear Keyham.

At 4.30pm, following detailed conversations with the legal team, permission had been granted to proceed with the removal of the bomb.  The city held its breath while the 45-minute operation took place. The roads were empty and silent as the bomb was carefully moved from its resting place, travelled through the streets, passing the naval base and to the water’s edge and then out to sea for disposal.

When the all-clear was given, communications once again went out – the cordon lifted, roads reopened, enabling people to return home.

What Communications advice would we give others?

We were lucky. The bomb didn’t go off, no one was hurt and all properties were left standing. But I do have some takeaways for others faced with a similar dilemma:

  • Don’t forget that you have civil contingency plans for Communications. That should be your starting point. Always refer to your plan to understand the wider organisational response and your role within it.
  • Make sure you know who the lead is for the Communications (Warning and Informing) cell and engage with them early on.
  • Really think about where you place your staff – you can’t all be working from home and agree how will you work. We found that actually What’s App for sharing updates was better than email, particularly for those out on the ground. We also had a shared ‘issues’ log – a growing FAQ list that we could add to and use in future comms.
  • Make sure you have a regular drumbeat for updating elected members. We set up a lead member What’s App group and met with them four times a day.
  • Identify your talking head/s as soon as possible and make sure they are supported.
  • Ensure communications gets issued early on and regularly, say something even if there isn’t much to say.
  • Communicate with your own organisations staff not just externally to residents.
  • Remember team equipment – make sure whoever goes out and about takes a microphone for interviews (and remember to take a charger for your phone)
  • Get in touch with the media proactively each morning to understand what their plans are for the day

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