Could a shared sense of ‘us-ness’ have helped during the response to the Manchester Arena Attack?

How group psychology can help improve interoperability

By Louise Davidson

According to Part Two of the public inquiry into the Manchester Arena Attack, one of the key problems with the response on the night was that the three emergency services failed to act as one team. Instead, the Police, Fire, and Ambulance Services were working as three separate teams.

One aspect of the Manchester Arena Attack that distinguishes it from day-to-day emergencies (e.g., burglaries, small house fires, and heart attacks) is the required joint nature of the response by the Police, Fire, and Ambulance Service. 

The Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Principles (JESIP) were established following incident reports that showed persistent challenges in the ability of the emergency services to work effectively together. JESIP aims to improve joint working by providing five principles for responders to follow: co-locate; communicate; co-ordination; joint understanding of risk; and shared situational awareness.

Despite the first doctrine providing these principles being published in 2013, and the second edition being published 10 months before the attack, the inquiry reported “significant failures in relation to each of these principles for joint working on the night of the attack” (p45).

Here are just some examples from the inquiry of how the JESIP principles were not met during the response:

Co-locate: There was no shared location which all the emergency services met. Despite a location being recorded by the Police, it was shared with the Ambulance Service but not shared with the Fire Service until more than an hour later. This shared location was not used by any agency.

Communicate: The Police declared Operation Plato (the phrase used to identify a suspected marauding firearms terrorist attack which triggers a pre-determined multi-agency response), however, this was not shared with anybody outside of the Police until after the last living casualty was removed.

Co-ordination: As a terrorist attack, the Police were the lead agency in the response. Commanders from each service should have been discussing resources and the activities of each agency, as well as agreeing priorities and making joint decisions throughout the incident. A commander from the Fire Service was not present until after the last living casualty had been removed, and whilst a commander from the Ambulance Service was present, they did not make any contact with the Police commander. 

Joint understanding of risk:Rather establishing a joint understanding of risk, the three services made their own risk assessments separately and reached different conclusions.

Shared situational awareness: Those on the scene did not record it as significant that the Fire Service were not present during the first two hours of the response. The Inquiry suggests that the reason for this was due to insufficient realisation on the part of police and ambulance of the contribution fire could have made on the night.

Taken together, these failures in the emergency services to follow the JESIP principles prevented their effective joint working. A vital question that we therefore need to ask is how could the emergency services have been better prepared to jointly respond to the Manchester Arena Attack?

How can group psychology help?

According to the Social Identity Approach, a shared sense of ‘us-ness’ (i.e., a shared identity) between people can facilitate co-ordination and co-operation between them through increasing their psychological sense of inter-connection and common purpose. To be put more simply, a shared sense of ‘us-ness’ can improve group working.

The inquiry suggests that responders involved in the response to the attack did not share a sense of ‘us-ness’ and thus did not respond as one team on the night. Yet, in my previous research I have found that it is possible for responders to share a sense of ‘us-ness’ with each other by making salient the fact they are part of the emergency services. This was made possible through responders from different organizations providing each other with emotional and physical support, as well as them recognizing they were sharing a difficult experience with each other. In addition, I have also found that leaders can play an important role in reinforcing a shared sense of ‘us-ness’ through ensuring common goals are communicated to all responders.

Expanding on this, in one of my recent studies, we conducted discussion-based exercises with responders from the Police, Fire, and Ambulance Services from across the UK where we gave them a scenario of a major incident and asked them to discuss with each other how they would respond. We wanted to know whether or not responders’ sense of ‘us-ness’ was linked to improved joint working in the exercise.

I found that a shared sense of ‘us-ness’ between responders in the exercise was associated with better self-reported joint working. Thus, a shared sense of ‘us-ness’ is linked to improved joint working.   

Furthermore, I identified that joint working was facilitated during the exercise through understanding the roles of the other emergency services present; responders having a shared frame of reference for how they should be responding (e.g., JESIP); having a common language to communicate to each other with; and responders trusting each other. A preprint for this research will be available soon.

What does this mean for future training/preparation?

Based on my research, I argue that a shared sense of ‘us-ness’ should be an important part of a multi-agency response. I have demonstrated that a shared sense of ‘us-ness’ is linked to improved joint working during a discussion-based exercise. Furthermore, I have identified specific factors which are linked to improved joint working. Based on this, I recommend that training and guidance needs to include basic group psychology, such as ways to harness a shared sense of ‘us-ness’ between emergency responders, in addition to the operational guidance it already includes.

I hope this research allows some learning to take place and provides a positive step forward from the challenges identified from the Manchester Arena Attack.

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