Leading article: These vital lessons from a terrible day

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The Independent Online

Yesterday's report by the London Assembly into the response of the emergency services to the July 7 bombings rightly begins by paying tribute to the countless acts of courage and resourcefulness by emergency workers, London Underground staff, health professionals, and passengers caught up in the turmoil. The terrorists responsible for this outrage no doubt hoped the enduring images of their self-destruction would be carnage and human misery. Instead, what most of us remember most vividly of that terrible day are pictures of people doing all they can to help the injured.

We should also bear in mind, as we reflect on the official response to the bombings, that the emergency services, for all their planning, had never been faced with such a scenario before. It is easy to argue with the benefit of hindsight that aspects of the operation could have been better handled, but those in charge had to deal with a nightmare situation as it unfolded. This is the context in which to view decisions made on that day.

Nevertheless, as this report makes clear, there are some broad lessons to be learnt. One of the inquiry's most disturbing findings was that the communication systems of the emergency services were totally inadequate for operation underground. Rescuers venturing into the tunnels to the bombed-out Tube trains found that their radios did not work. London Underground's system failed too. Only the radios of the London Transport Police functioned properly. The Metropolitan Police, the Fire Brigade and the London Ambulance Service had to go without. Some resorted to their mobile phones, others used runners to convey information to the streets above.

Eighteen years after the King's Cross fire, an integrated radio system for the emergency services that works underground is still not in place. This was described by the report yesterday as "unacceptable" - a verdict that it is hard to disagree with. Integrating communications systems to work underground is not a simple matter. Some tunnels are so deep that it is difficult for even the most powerful radio systems to function. There is also a risk of overloading a system if it is stretched to accommodate too many users. But it is not impossible either. Some of world's biggest underground systems, including New York, have managed it. London must too.

The other major problem identified by the report was a shortage of basic medical supplies on the scene, such as stretchers and blankets. One paramedic who gave evidence to the inquiry was forced to raid a nearby department store for extra bandages. This is something that ought to be easily rectified by storing a large central supply of such materials to be used in case of an emergency.

The report's criticism of the official response is ultimately quite specific. It argues that while the plans of individual emergency agencies are largely satisfactory, there needs to be more co-operation and communication between them. This communication problem was summed up by the fact that there was no single declaration of a major emergency by the ambulance, police or fire services. Each made such a declaration individually, wasting valuable time.

Doubts continue to grow over whether the latest anti-terror raid by the police in the capital was based on good intelligence. But as we approach the first anniversary of the July bombings, we are reminded that there remains a genuine terrorist threat in Britain. This latest report also reminds us that the response of the emergency services could be crucial again. If the July 7 attacks had been on a greater scale, such organisational flaws could have cost lives. The British public demand, and are entitled to demand, that the sensible recommendations of this report are enacted without delay.

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