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Solace blog

29th April 2015

Are local authorities fully prepared for the inevitable flood?

Memories of the UK’s flood-dominated winter in 2014 may be receding for many people, apart from those whose homes or businesses were flooded, but periods of heavy rain and severe weather are likely to be more frequent in future. It is vital that local authorities in the Thames catchment area are fully prepared to meet the challenges posed by the almost inevitable flood that is heading our way.

Although local authorities in London have prepared local flood plans and have worked with the Environment Agency and others to develop these at a local level, senior officers should consider whether their staff are sufficiently familiar with the flood risk and their plans to deal with flooding when the waters rise once again.

The severity of the flood risk should not be underestimated. Floods have the potential to affect many thousands of people and have a significant effect on their well-being and, in certain circumstances, put lives at risk. Experience in London and elsewhere has shown us that floods can rapidly affect critical infrastructure, lead to a breakdown in law and order and interrupt food and drinking water supplies. We were on the cusp of such a breakdown in early 2014 and during the summer floods of 2007. Within a surprisingly short period, normal life as we know it may be
significantly disrupted.

The public quite rightly look to the fire and rescue services, other emergency services, the Environment Agency and local councils to respond quickly and effectively to flood emergencies. The public have high expectations of what can be achieved and how quickly. The media are quick to spot any perceived shortcomings, no matter how challenging the incident or how well flood plans are progressing overall.

However, the reality is that floods can be complex and difficult incidents to prevent, prepare for and deal with. Widespread flood events frequently cross local authority boundaries and require extensive co-operation and coordination among already stretched organisations, some of whom may not have a great deal of experience of joint working over sustained time periods. In the short term, a significant flood will require the combined and co-ordinated resources of the emergency services, transport, water, and energy companies; in the medium to long term, floods also have the potential to create major issues for housing, health, and most public services.

From the perspective of the London Fire Brigade, any significant flood event will be managed in line with well-tried and tested protocols. What may not be fully appreciated is that while floods can be significant events, they are not always emergencies. Major floods will typically move from the ‘emergency phase’, when the fire service and others may need to undertake rescue and undertake urgent pumping operations to protect critical buildings and infrastructure, into a less dynamic phase, when the rescue services will withdraw and the lead and responsibility for action passes to local authorities.

Local authorities have a wide range of responsibilities in emergencies and floods, which by their very nature can be protracted and move in and out of the emergency phase over time. For example, they need to have resilient 24/7 arrangements in place to deal with activities such as resident evacuation; the wider movement of people and supplies; and pumping water from areas that don’t contain critical infrastructure and where there is no immediate risk to life.

Planning is a key component of an effective response. Partner agencies need to assess and plan for the risk of flood in their area via their Local Resilience Forum and ensure reliable arrangements are in place. Key buildings and infrastructure that need to be protected should be identified and plans should be made and tested via exercises to ensure that appropriate arrangements are in place to deal with foreseeable risk and likely scenarios. As there is often a flood warning, the days and hours leading up to a significant flood event should be used to check everything is in place and, where appropriate, forward deployed resources to areas of specific risk. Thankfully, there has not been a repeat of the flooding of early 2014, but local authorities and others should regularly ask themselves if they are fully prepared for floods while the going is good.

Peter Cowup, Assistant Commissioner, London Fire Brigade