Communicating through Storm Desmond:  the challenges, the issues and lessons learned

One year on from the floods, I wanted to share my experience.  I wasn't affected personally but my the thing I remember most was lying in bed in the early hours of that Sunday morning, listening to the helicopters flying overhead and feeling well… quite frightened.  And if I felt like that, I can't begin to imagine what patients, staff and others who were flooded out were going through.  Below are my reflections from a communications perspective.

Storm Desmond well and truly threw down the gauntlet to our communications systems last year… just when we needed them the most.  All of a sudden on a Saturday afternoon, Desmond’s unwelcome presence meant that we had a hugely increased need to communicate to our workforce, our health and care partners, and our patients in a fast moving environment under extremely challenging circumstances.   Not content with the havoc he had already brought, Desmond wanted to put our major incident communications plans to the ultimate test.

Our Trust covers the county of Cumbria and sees around 4000 staff delivering 60 services from around 200 bases across the County.   Storm Desmond flooded over 6000 properties in all corners of the County including around 100 of our own staff, and left in its wake huge disruption to our transport network with many roads closed due to flooding and structural damage, and leaving over 1000 bridges requiring inspection or work to repair them.  The shock and devastation experienced is almost indescribable with just three weeks until Christmas our communities, patients, staff and friends lives turned upside down.

Amidst the shock and the need to ensure our immediate families, friends and colleagues were safe, we needed to get on with the job of communicating through the major incident.

First up, getting information out about weather and travel disruption to staff either battling to reach patients in the community in need of urgent care and treatment, or trying to get to their workplace in one of our 23 inpatient units spread around the County.   We needed to work closely with our partners to understand the challenges and to arrange mutual aid from mountain rescue and others to reach patients who needed us.  And we needed to reassure patients and the community that we would be able to get to those people who needed us most.

On a normal day that would be fine.  But throw into the mix that you are on your own, it’s out of hours (not to mention it is also the strictly final), working from home with intermittent electricity, family roaming about the house, a laptop with failing network connection, and no data to mobile phone due to power outages.  Desmond, you want a challenge? Bring it on.

When our Gold on call manager contacted me on the Saturday teatime, I was fortunate to still have a working network connection and was able to participate in the system and trust wide conference calls to pull together key messages for our staff to send out that evening.  However, the effectiveness of e-mails and web posts are greatly reduced particularly out of hours when our staff, who are working across the County are somewhat engaged in other things! 

Then amidst growing uncertainty about the transport network and most routes around the County being affected by the storm, I started to experience electricity and data network failures over long periods of time.  This was quite isolating as I was then unable to receive details of telecon’s / dial ins and communications from internal and external sources.  The only method of communication I had was my work phone.   

Of course we have major incident plans in place, and had only tested them a month earlier when we had to evacuate a two mental health wards because of a burst water pipe flooding the unit.   But Desmond really put our plans to the ultimate test.  More to remind myself than anything else, I wanted to reflect on the challenges and think about the unique aspects of desmond and any lessons that can be learned to improve our plans for whatever is thrown at us in the future.

Challenge number one – how to obtain information, develop key messages and conduct comms lead duties with a mobile phone and no data.  Entering into the Saturday night, the best I could do was ring our gold on call commander and agree key messages with them based on the information they had received to cascade to staff through our incident command structure.   

Challenge number two – how to maximise the number of staff receiving the information being sent to them when they are spread out around the County and battling through the storm and not sitting in front of a PC.   On the Sunday, I found a colleague who had electricity and data and asked them to help me with preparing and issuing key messages digitally.  We set up a page on our website and asked our staff to keep checking it for the latest information with all of the channels available to us. Facebook in particular proved useful to get information out in the community for people who were looking for it.   

Challenge number  3 – getting your comms heard amongst so much noise - we needed to let patients and staff know what our plans were for the following day.  We did ask staff to keep checking our website we also sent our info out to the media, but it was not easy getting our voice heard in the local media as there was so much going on.

So what were the issues brought by Desmond that had the greatest impact on our communications systems the most:

  1. Scale – the scale and extent of the flooding was something that we have never seen before.  Cumbria has had its fair share of flooding, but this has often been confined to particular areas.  As a resident of Carlisle, I remember the floods of 2004 and 2009 clearly and the impact that had.  I also remember flooding in Cockermouth and West Cumbria.  But Desmond brought flooding to the whole county all at once. It affected almost every community, in which our staff live and work and every community in which our patients need care and treatment.    101 of our own staff were affected personally and needed our support and many of our patients, our small inpatient, staff needed, staff working from over 200 sites across the County.  So not only did it negatively impact on the capacity of our staff, but on a grander scale it impacted on the delivery of all of our services all at once.
  2. Speed  - although we were already on an amber alert of rain from the Friday, the scale of the rainfall and flooding was far greater than anticipated with the red warning coming at very short notice and the situation very quickly deteriorating.   Because it was out of hours there was very little time to prepare.
  3. Geography  – our staff are spread out around the County, the second biggest County in the UK.  Our services rely on visiting homes, clinics, GP surgeries, community hospitals .  Our geography means that mobile signals are not always available. We are greatly reliant on the transport infrastructure that was so badly affected with over 1000 bridges damaged and major routes washed away making travelling very difficult.

What did I learn?

Constantly review your major incident plans

With our increasing reliance on technology, ensure your plans are well covered for a failure in your digital/tele communications systems.  The week before the major incident, staff had been receiving new mobiles – this affected the resilience of our systems for communicating with each other.   Keep reviewing your plans in the light of changes in technology and consider how resilient that technology is.

If all else fails, go back to basics

Your plans should be geared firstly around the good old fashioned gold, silver and bronze command structure.  If technology becomes unavailable your focus should be on that first with technology updated as soon as possible.

Cumbria has spirit

I heard some stories that were heart-warming , some that were devastating, and some that were uplifting about the spirit of the people of Cumbria in responding to Desmond.   Some of them are in the flood edition of our newsletter.

I learned that we did everything we possibly could with the resources we had and the circumstances we found ourselves in. 

I learned that I live and work in the most remarkable County with the most remarkable people.

I’d like to say that we won’t see anything on the scale of Desmond for some time to come, but I don’t think I can say that with any confidence.  What I can say is that up in Cumbria, we’re ready for it.

Kath Hughes, Head of Engagement & Communications
Cumbria Partnership NHS Foundation Trust