A review of the Manchester Arena bombing

A look at how crisis communications can impact emergency response

Written by: Jim Preen - Crisis Management Director at YUDU Sentinel

Date: 20 March, 2020

Incident Overview

The bombing of the Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena in 2017 is one of the most appalling examples of an emergency at an entertainment venue. Twenty-three people died and more than 800 were injured.

In the wake of the attack the emergency service response was heavily critiscised. Sparking an investigation which resulted in publication of the Kerslake report.

While there were many contributing factors, the underlying cause was a failure in crisis communications. This created mass confusion and paralysed police and fire services, severely impacting the emergency response.

The Kerslake Report

The Kerslake report was conducted to uncover the issues that impacted the emergency service response. With the express aim of implementing change to improve any future emergency response and avoid past mistakes.

In this case study, we take a high level look at the crisis communication failures that impacted the emergency response to the Manchester Arena bombing:

Inter-Agency communication breakdown

The Kerslake Report found the Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue Service was ‘brought to a point of paralysis’ when their response was delayed for two hours due to poor communication between the firefighters' liaison officer and the police.

The fire service initially understood the attack to be the work of an armed gunman, similar to the shootings in Paris. A national liaison officer, following agreed protocols, ordered firefighters to gather at a station two miles away. In such circumstances, guidelines indicated that only armed police in body armour were cleared to go in.

Inability to contact key stakeholders

A liaison officer tried to speak to the police duty officer to clarify what was happening, but was unable to make contact.

Author of the review, Lord Kerslake said firefighters felt they had let Manchester down, but he said, ‘they did not, but their procedures, communications and operational culture most certainly did’.

Firefighters stationed near Manchester Arena ‘could see that something was happening and wanted to go forward, but were prevented from doing so’.

Catasrophic failure of the emergency helpline

Vodafone were heavily criticised for a ‘catastrophic failure’ of an emergency helpline. It took almost five hours to set up an effectiveinformation hotline.

This failure caused ‘significant stress and upset’ to families and friends searching for information on loved ones. The knock on effect overwhelemed local hospitals as members of the public were left desperately searching for loved ones at the various Manchester hospitals.

Handling the misinformation of Social Media

Kerslake said the emergency services were unprepared for the social media onslaught saying:

"The need to monitor social media, respond to inaccuracies, ‘warn and inform’ and promote their own messages was largely underestimated.

Those organisations which had a lengthy approval process experienced particular challenges in issuing timely information, particularly on Twitter."

Poor official agency communication channels

Many of the emergency services’ staff were unhappy with the ‘official agency communication channels’ and instead utilised informal WhatsApp groups.

As the report notes WhatsApp is a poor crisis management tool as it cannot be ‘monitored or managed within organisational processes’.

Future Improvements

Kerslake said it was essential for emergency response organisations to work to address gaps identified following the attack.

Almost every organisation found it needed to improve its communication, a critical factor in improving their emergency response. Elements highlighted to improve future crisis communication include:

  • A significant requriement to upgrade existing Information Technology systems for communication
  • A need to overhaul the existing protocols with a focus on ammending the communications element of emergency plans
  • The need for all agencies to increase their communications resource during incidents to handle soccial media misinformation. As well as a review of lengthy approval processes to accelerate speed of communication
  • A review of official agency communication channels with a view to implementing more user friendly systems to prevent the use of unofficial channels which cannot be monitored
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