Operation Selemat

Viv Ellis experiences Ealing's disaster planning exercise

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The combination of the Duchess of Cambridge's visit yesterday to Ealing Studios at the same time as the council's emergency response exercise had all the makings of a classic Ealing Comedy.

Imagine what HRH (and her security services) would have done if they'd seen dozens of bandaged and bloodied civilians around the Town Hall?

Our intrepid reporter, Viv Ellis, valiantly volunteered to take part in the mock-up exercise and recounts her experiences of a somewhat stranger than usual day in Ealing.


So… an appeal came around to be a volunteer in an Ealing Council Disaster Planning Exercise, I put myself forward. It was called ‘Exercise Selemat’ and the pack we were sent explained that the whole point was to simulate a multi-agency response to an emergency incident.

This day, we were later told, had taken over 7 months planning and was the biggest training exercise they’d attempted. It must be very difficult for a council to have plans in place for emergency situations, which may never happen.

On arrival at the Town Hall at 9 am we were asked to choose what role we wanted to play – for instance injured and needing casualty make-up, extremely distressed or – and this grabbed me right away- suspicious of someone they’d seen earlier “taking photographs and acting suspiciously”.

We were then told that this “serious event” had happened at a “Vaisakhi” event in Southall, (a quick ‘Google’ informed me this is a big Sikh festival,) that a bridge had collapsed injuring many people and that there was a risk of “contamination”. I think it would have helped to have been told this in advance, but maybe that’s just me.

We were then led up to the fire station. The long, long, long wait outside was livened up a bit for me when I was chatted up by a young man, drinking rum out of a bottle (!) who told me he’d just come out of prison, would I like to buy any drugs off him and could he have my phone number? (no to both)

Inside the fire station was supposed to be the next part of the briefing. Except neither I nor several around me could hear a word. To be fair, in a real emergency I guess everyone’s adrenaline will be up and they’ll shout more. I did hear snatches; including some people will be asked to take off their clothes in case they were contaminated. Some of us were wondering what this ‘contaminant’ might be. Asbestos? E bola? Then someone told me it was chili. As this was a fellow volunteer I don’t know if this was official or not, though I know from experience that carelessness in the kitchen with a Scotch Bonnett can be very painful.

Those that had volunteered to be “injured” were duly made up and given tattered clothing. Some were given bright orange ‘Smurf’ costumes to put on after they’d stripped off their own clothes.

Then it was off to the Borough Emergency Control Centre – Town Hall again, just a different room. There, in theory, we would all be registered with full details taken of identity, injuries and other concerns.

On arrival we were all given a leaflet giving information about what would happen, how family and friends could be contacted – even saying board games would be available which I guess is helpful if children are involved. I have to say the “staff” here, both council volunteers and ambulance and police participants, were all unfailingly polite and solicitous, making sure we had water, and asking if we were injured or distressed,

As we hadn’t really been given any information or pictures about the festival we had supposedly visited or the bridge that had supposedly collapsed killing and injuring people, I spent my time thinking about what to report to the police that I had ‘seen’ – the man acting suspiciously and taking pictures. I needn’t have bothered, no one asked and I never got to speak to a policeman.

I can appreciate it must be very challenging organizing something like this. But, you surely want it to be as realistic as possible? There was not what I would call a realistic spread of ages, there was no one there in a wheelchair – and surely the odds are that in a ‘real’ accident there would be and staff would need to be sympathetic to their needs? There were no elderly people, babies or toddlers. On the plus side everyone seemed to work well as a team.

After two hours I was bored witless. By this time, in a real emergency the place would have been swamped with reporters and TV. We were not given any information about the “serious accident that had happened” so I hope, if this were ever real, staff would be better prepared.

It became apparent – to us and the organizing staff – that the registration process was taking far too long. We were eventually de-briefed and told we could go home.

I’d been there five hours by then. Of course I cannot say how the professionals- medical, police and emergency planning people – found the exercise, I hope it was positive and they know what needs to be looked at improved and shared with other councils.

Viv Ellis



13th March 2015