There’s nothing like a crisis to focus everyone’s minds. And in west London, we’ve recently had our share after last year’s tragic blaze at Grenfell Tower and the Parsons Green tube terror attack.
The incredible displays of community spirit and human kindness were evident in both these emergencies. So we set about trying to improve how we engage residents and community groups in the event of another crisis by launching a community resilience initiative.
We’re building an army of trained community outreach volunteers in a groundbreaking scheme to boost our responses to an emergency. Our borough’s vision has us doing things with residents – not to them – as a key pillar; and our community resilience plan Stronger Together does just that.
Our first step was to hold a ‘hackathon’ on engaging communities in emergency planning.
Attended by more than 130 community representatives, residents and local businesses, the event served as a platform to value the views, skills and strengths of our local communities. From language skills, to DBS checked childcare, to bereavement support – we were inundated with offers and ideas.
That led to the creation of a community extranet – a secure emergency response website where our network of volunteers and community groups have a direct line of communication with the council in real-time during an emergency. It allows the council to quickly share the latest information with community responders in a crisis. It also gives the responders the chance to ask questions, offer support, and report issues and concerns they are hearing on the ground. This enables a faster and more purposeful response.
Our council-funded partnership inspector likes it, too. Inspector Jim Cook of the Met Police said: ‘In an emergency we’ll have an established mechanism in place. We can’t work alone and we need the community’s help.’
Other councils are now also taking a keen interest in how we are empowering our residents to play a more vital role in emergency situations.
We’re now training up volunteers and recently piloted an event which saw community organisations, residents’ groups and local businesses come to the town hall to show them how our emergency response network is run during a crisis.
On the day, we played through a simulated emergency scenario, which included setting up a real rest centre, a police cordon, a look inside our CCTV room, and a tour of a London Fire Brigade command and control vehicle.
Our social media response was also explained – including our use of the pioneering community platform Nextdoor. We were the first local authority in the UK to partner with the app and already 11% of all households in the borough are members. This will greatly assist our ability to respond in the event of an emergency.
Wilma Owusu, a member of a local tenants’ association, said: ‘We should have more of these schemes around the country. There are many people who want to help. Now they can. It’s fantastic.’
We are now training community responders on how best to remember and record what happens when there is a major incident, as well as offering first aid training.
During the crisis at Grenfell we were inundated with thousands and thousands of donations – including clothes, prayer mats, toiletries, breast pumps and much more – from people all over the country.
This was something we were unprepared for and it required a quick response to make sure we could handle and process all the donations until local charities and community groups could accept them.
The response of the community was outstanding and it was equally impressive during the Parsons Green terror attack. Emergency services, local business owners and residents all came together to help everyone affected after a bomb partially exploded on a busy rush hour tube train as it pulled into the station at Parsons Green in Fulham.
Businesses handed out free food and drinks; the local chemist helped organise emergency medication for residents whose homes were evacuated; the local pub became a makeshift rest centre; residents of the closest estate spontaneously volunteered at our rest centre; while many local residents opened up their homes to those affected.
One of the local heroes was Teo Catino, owner of a local Italian restaurant, who rushed to the scene to give away pizzas and water to members of the emergency services.
‘When something tragic happens on your doorstep you need to drop everything and put the community first – and that is what we saw on the day,’ Teo said. ‘Everyone came together and took care of one another.’
We knew we had a great local community. But the emergencies last year made us think how we could better utilise the brilliant resource we have at our disposal in times of need.
Given the size and scale of these events, we thought being stronger together was an obvious win win. That’s why we’ve spent the past year talking and learning with our residents, businesses and partners about how we can respond together without distracting from our responsibilities or squandering their goodwill.
We’re not finished. But now we’re a lot more confident that we can respond to emergencies together as a community, not just as a council.
Kim Dero is chief executive of Hammersmith & Fulham LBC