Terrorism, response, psychological readiness, first response | Homeland Security Newswire

Terrorism: Emergency response Terror attacks: how psychological research can help improve the emergency response

By Nicola Power, Laura Boulton, and Olivia Brown

Published 22 May 2018

In this age of unpredictability, how can the emergency services prepare themselves to respond to a terror attack, like the one at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester in 2017? We’ve looked into the psychology of decision making and how the key lessons from The Kerslake Report – which evaluated the emergency response during the Manchester attack – could be applied on the ground.

Western society is engaged in what has been referred to as an “arms race” against terrorism. Atrocities are increasingly characterized by novel and low-cost methods with the sole aim of causing as much death and destruction as possible. “The terrorist” is no longer a distinct enemy from a defined terrorist organization, but is increasingly associated with diverse and wide-ranging beliefs.

So in this age of unpredictability, how can the emergency services prepare themselves to respond to a terror attack, like the one at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester in 2017? We’ve looked into the psychology of decision making and how the key lessons from The Kerslake Report – which evaluated the emergency response during the Manchester attack – could be applied on the ground.

Design for the unpredictable
Operational plans must be designed to reflect the unpredictable nature of terror attacks. One of the key lessons from the Kerslake Report related to the mismatch between current operational procedures and the nature of real-world attacks. It was noted that the agreed joint operational response to terror attacks – so-called Operation PLATO – did not fit Manchester.

Operation PLATO is based on an assumption of firearms being present, meaning that only specialist trained and protected responders can operate in the affected areas. However, the Manchester attack was the result of a bomb and no firearms were present. In fact, none of the most recent attacks in the U.K., such as Finsbury Park, London Bridge or Westminster involved firearms. This begs the question of how the emergency services can best prepare for terror attacks when modern day terrorism is becoming less and less predictable?

One way to cope with unpredictability during operational planning could be to shift focus away from the “type” of incident (for example, firearms) and focus on the dynamic risk currently faced at scene (threat to lives of responders).