Defending Wales VIII: Civil Defence

(Title Image: FEMA)

The next part of this series discusses an aspect of defence that was sidelined (in the UK) at the end of the Cold War but has since gained new prominence in the post 9/11 world : civil defence and emergency powers.

Just to prove how current some of this is, only look at the news coming out of Germany on proposed civil defence measures, including the possibility of conscription.

Differences Between Civil Defence and The Military

The major difference between military and civil defence is that civil defence is about protecting non-combatants/civilians, in particular during emergencies that don’t necessarily involve an attack by foreign power or terrorists.

Civil defence has different names : emergency planning, civil contingencies, emergency/disaster preparedness, emergency management, civil protection etc.

Although the military plays a role in civil defence, most of the responsibility rests of the shoulders of the blue light emergency services (police, ambulance, fire & rescue, coastguard etc.) and local authorities. Some nations – including the Republic of Ireland, France and Norway – have stand-alone civil defence organisations with their own personnel (usually volunteers) and equipment.

The UK used to have two civil defence organisations – the Civil Defence Corps and Royal Observer Corps – but their responsibilities are either redundant in light of a reduced threat of nuclear attack, or simply taken up by the emergency services, in particular fire brigades.

Current Civil Defence Arrangements

In the period between the end of the Cold War and 9/11, civil defence in the UK wasn’t in the best shape and had been tested several times in incidents such as the 2000 fuel protests and 2001 foot and mouth epidemic.

As a result of the 9/11 attacks and increased risk of mass-casualty incidents, the UK Government updated legislation via the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. The Act created two tiers of responders to major incidents:

  • Category 1 – These are supposed to actively plan and practice for major incidents and are obligated to carry out risk assessments. They include the emergency services, local authorities, NHS/health boards, coastguard and Natural Resources Wales.
  • Category 2 – Non-emergency services that might have a supporting role in responding to a major incident. They’re usually energy and utilities companies, transport agencies like Network Rail and airport operators.

The gold-silver-bronze command structure used during major incidents – which already unofficially existed – was made permanent. Gold command has overall control of the response (i.e. police control room), silver tends to be in charge of tactical operations (i.e. an incident room near the scene itself), bronze commanders are in charge of resources at the scene (i.e. a fire station officer).

Controversially, the Act also outlined provisions for emergency powers (which I’ll return to later). During the Cold War, these powers already existed in the form of Wartime Regulations which would have suspended normal activities and curtailed civil liberties. Although the Act didn’t create new regulations, it would effectively give the UK Government time-limited dictatorial powers during a state of emergency.

Around the same time the Act was passed, the UK Government sent a booklet to every household titled Preparing for Emergencies (pdf) which was supposed to offer practical advice on things like first aid and how to act during a terror attack. It drew unflattering comparisons with the Protect & Survive initiative during the Cold War, while the government were accused of scaremongering.

Another feature of civil defence which you probably hear of most often about is the Cabinet Office Briefing Room (aka. COBRA/COBR): a classified location where senior members of the UK Government and heads of other relevant organisations meet during national or regional crises. When COBR meetings are mentioned it usually indicates that whatever’s happening is serious.

The Welsh Government has an equivalent called the Emergency Co-ordination Centre as well as a Wales Resilience Committee, but it’s unclear how many times it’s been used or when. As said earlier, the responsibility for emergency planning lies with local authorities, who are obligated to appoint an emergency planning officer (or have someone on call 24 hours a day) – though they’re more often used to deal with bad weather and gritting roads.

Civil Defence & Independence

Based on international and domestic examples, there are several paths Wales could follow depending on which one best suits our needs:

  • Existing model (centrally-planned; multi-agency working) – No change. Civil defence would continue to be provided based on the provisions of the Civil Contingencies Act.
  • A stand-alone civil defence agency – A single agency, like the United States’ FEMA, Danish Emergency Management Agency, French Sécurité Civile or Civil Defence Ireland would be responsible for emergency planning and co-ordination of responses to civil emergencies. They would be supported by a predominantly volunteer support staff (or military reservists), perhaps based at a local authority level.
  • Civil defence planning handled by an existing agency – The response to and planning for civil emergencies would be overseen by a single pre-existing agency or emergency service. This would either be Natural Resources Wales, the Welsh Defence Force’s Chief of Staff or fire and rescue services (for obvious reasons) – based on the fact that they’re all more likely to encounter a major incident or be trained to deal with it.

All things considered, continuing with the existing model would be appropriate with a few changes.

An umbrella organisation could be established – for sake of argument called Civil Defence Wales – which would include emergency services (fire service, police, ambulance, coastguard), military commanders, representatives of the Welsh Government, utilities and energy companies (including Natural Resources Wales), relevant voluntary organisations (i.e. St John’s Ambulance, Red Cross, mine & cave rescue, mountain rescue) and local authority emergency planning officers.

It would be a spiritual successor to the Wales Resilience Committee and be responsible for co-ordinating civil defence arrangements at a national level, drafting risk assessments as well as preparing nationwide or local civil defence drills.

During an emergency itself, the relevant members of Civil Defence Wales – including, where appropriate, the security services – would meet in committee (“Welsh COBR”) to oversee the response of the Welsh Government and public agencies (like the NHS). The gold-silver-bronze command system would remain in place.

Other things to consider include:

  • Introduce a military rank system to police, ambulance and fire officers – ….so everyone has a better idea who’s in charge of what and to what level. For example, a fire station officer or a police chief inspector could have a rank of “captain”.
  • Making organisations like mountain, mine and cave rescue military reservists – ….with subsequent eligibility for military reservist privileges and they would no longer be reliant upon charitable support.
  • A national fire and rescue service – Arguments for or against a single police force can be returned to another time, but a single fire service with a single training centre and single headquarters could create an economy of scale similar to the Scottish Fire & Rescue Service, which was created in 2013. There could still be regional accountability to mayors, local authorities or a regional tier of government.
  • A merged ambulance and fire service? – In some parts of the country, fire and ambulance services already share things like maintenance or office space, notably Wrexham. There’s certainly an argument – put forward in the UKIP 2016 manifesto of all places – that the ambulance and fire services should merge. Firefighters already have to be trained to perform emergency first aid, while paramedics often need to be put in dangerous situations. The arguments for and against are too detailed to go into here.
  • First aid training in schools – I know Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) has long advocated this and there was an Assembly debate on training nursery workers during the Fourth Assembly. Some children will be taught this through extra-curricular activities like the Duke of Edinburgh Award or lifesaving/lifeguard, but with the curriculum due to change, it makes sense to revisit it. Teaching everyone CPR or how to deal with bleeding, choking, strokes or electrocution is one of the best civil defence policies any government can make.
  • A Welsh “disaster relief fund” – A sum of money from Welsh Government reserves could be ring-fenced for urgent relief efforts during serious emergencies, or to compensate local authorities etc. This could also include secure food and supply stores dotted around the country for use in emergencies or, as widely mocked in the German press today, encouraging the public to store a few days worth of non-perishable food and water themselves.

Warning the Public

The main way the public will receive news of a civil emergency is through the mainstream media as part of rolling news coverage. Social media is now also used by the emergency services, utilities companies etc. while there are matrix signs on major trunk roads to warn drivers.

With the network of air raid sirens dismantled in the early 1990s (reportedly due to the increased use of double and triple glazed windows), the problem at present is that people are increasingly likely to use mobile devices like tablets and smart phones, so it’s not guaranteed they’ll get a message of possible danger straight away anymore.

The UK Cabinet Office trialled a text alert system – reporting back in 2014 (pdf) – and text-based alerts have particular advantages as messages can be sent to highly localised areas through phone operator databases; so if you aren’t directly affected by an emergency you won’t be annoyed by it. Indeed, one of the main concerns was annoyance; however, a survey found up to 80% of respondents thought such messages would be useful.

In the United States, Australia, Japan and Canada, they have more complex warning systems which interrupt television and radio programmes to broadcast messages. The systems were developed for use during the Cold War, but in North America are now mainly used to warn of tornadoes, other severe weather or child abductions (aka. amber alert). Japan’s early warning system is geared towards earthquakes and tsunami, while Australia has one for tropical cyclones.

It’s unquestionable that such systems have saved lives, even if the warnings give as little as 30 seconds notice.

Whether an independent Wales needs an invasive“Emergency Alert System” is up for debate as we rarely face any threats that demand urgent action except serious flooding and Atlantic storms (which give you a few days notice). The risk is that as a result of climate change those severe weather events become more frequent and dangerous.

In the meantime, it’s worth considering a unified colour coded Emergency Alert System. At the moment we have separate alert systems for flooding, weather, terrorism etc. Combining them into a single system might make it easier for the public to understand the severity of an incident. For example, “Red Warning” could replace severe flood warnings, critical terrorism alerts or Met Office red warnings and in all circumstances means an imminent threat to life regardless of what the threat is.

Emergency Powers & Continuity of Government

Some situations are so grave they require a response above and beyond that provided by civil authorities and ordinary emergency planning.

During the Cold War, “transition to war” arrangements – activated in the period of international tensions prior to a nuclear attack – would’ve seen the UK divided into regions, with the head of each (usually a senior civil servant, like a council’s chief executive) given total control over life and death. TV and radio would’ve been replaced with rolling public information films, known subversives would’ve been detained and the government would commandeer motorways and communication services for official use only.

In that spirit, Carmarthenshire Council are an ongoing experiment in civil service dictatorship, but nobody’s told them the Cold War’s over.

The UK’s emergency powers are outlined in Part 2 of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. In general, an “emergency” is defined as any incident that poses serious environmental damage or threatens human welfare in a region or across the UK as a whole; this includes mass loss of life, disruption to infrastructure, mass homelessness or threat from disease.

The Act gives the UK Government powers to pass emergency regulations under royal prerogative to control, prevent or mitigate any aspect of an“emergency” to protect life or property, or to ensure key infrastructure such as transport and utilities supplies continue to function.

It also, controversially, makes it an offence not to comply with the emergency regulations – though there are limits to the powers; they can’t be used to introduce conscription, create new criminal offences or ban strikes. They’re also time-limited: they only last seven days at a time unless extended by a parliamentary vote.

In most other countries, such circumstances are officially declared as a “state of emergency” – France declared a state of emergency in November 2015 in response to the Paris terror attacks which was extended by a further three months following the Nice terror attack on July 14th, while Turkey recently instituted on as a result of the attempted coup in July 2016. In the United States, the power can also be used by state governors and local mayors within their jurisdiction.

As emergency powers are often sweeping and absolute (to the point of effectively authorising an open-ended dictatorship), it’s incredibly important to balance the extent of powers (in order for them to be effective) with time limitations, civil rights and democratic control.

Post-independence, declaring a state of emergency (at whatever level – national or within a local jurisdiction) could automatically:


  • Activate military reserve units (or give local authorities the power to organise military assistance).
  • Grant powers to a relevant authority (i.e. police) to start mandatory evacuations.
  • Cancel major public events, close schools, universities and colleges, clear non-urgent casualties from hospital A&E departments.
  • Grant the relevant authorities the power to establish curfews, or limit movements by road closures/road blocks etc.
  • Allow the government to take temporary control of major infrastructure or facilities (i.e. oil and energy supplies, local community centres to house evacuees).

At a national level, declaring a state of emergency and activating emergency powers is usually the role of head of state – in an independent Wales that could be the monarch, a president etc. As said, in the UK it’s done by royal prerogative via an Order in Council.

It would be a violation of democracy for the legislature not to have the final say on how long emergency regulations should last, so the Senedd would vote to start and end emergency regulations and this would be written into a Welsh constitution. At a local level, the power to declare an emergency could be held by directly-elected mayors or the council leader. 

Immediately upon independence, the provisions within the Civil Contingencies Act would still apply, though whether this should be replaced with an updated Emergency Powers Act would be for the government and legislators of the day to decide. 

Part IX will look at how military personnel could be recruited (including what recruiters shouldn’t do), the sort of skills an independent Welsh military would demand from recruits, as well as military training.