Leading article: Crisis management

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There was a great deal wrong with the way the Foreign Office responded to the Indian Ocean tsunami last Boxing Day. A report issued yesterday revealed that emergency hotlines were overwhelmed, there was a shortage of medical staff, and a rapid response team was sent to Sri Lanka when the need was greater in Thailand. In Bangkok, e-mails went unopened in the first 24 hours, leaving a plea for help from Britons in the Khao Lak area unanswered for three days. This was distressing for those caught up in the disaster and for their families. The response should have been much quicker and better.

But hindsight is the only form of vision which is truly 20/20, and what the National Audit Office report also shows is the extent to which Foreign Office systems have improved since its maladroit handling of the aftermath of the Bali bombings in 2002. A crisis management team was brought together to look at the adequacy of travel advice, the handling of phone calls from relatives, and systems for mobilising help on the ground. Three Rapid Deployment Teams, each of 12 experts, with one team on call at all times, were set up. And an emergency response centre was established to reroute calls to police call centres with 650 trained operators. There is also now a team responsible for allocating emergency equipment. Unfortunately, some of these measures were not in place in time for the tsunami.

The tsunami, though, was an unusual disaster, not just in its scale - some 300,000 people died - but in the wide geographical area over which those fatalities was spread. This meant that the Foreign Office was receiving three calls a second from anxious relatives - and on a public holiday. This does not mean, though, that there were no lessons to learn.

The British Red Cross gave vital support in the crisis, and it is clear that such voluntary organisations should be enlisted by the Foreign Office in future crisis planning. Volunteers rushed to man phone lines and make hospital visits, but networks needed to be in place to match the skills of volunteers to what needed doing. It may be that a second Rapid Deployment Team should be permanently on standby, perhaps somewhere like Hong Kong, though there are clearly cost-benefit considerations here. Better communications equipment for teams is needed. And if roles were more clearly demarcated, other government departments, such as the Ministry of Defence, might be able to play a greater part.

The picture, though, is not entirely bleak. The Foreign Office now has a disaster response system that is not only far more effective, but a model for other countries. Valuable lessons have been learnt from the mistakes.

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