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Mike Adamson: What the Red Cross learned at Grenfell Tower

By Mike Adamson 1 September 2017


The human trauma arising from the Grenfell Tower fire will change the lives of those affected forever, almost entirely for the worse. Its knock-on effects are pervasive and insidious, risking undermining confidence in authority, not only in Kensington and Chelsea but everywhere where a vulnerable community or group are dependent on the authorities for their protection.

For the Red Cross, the response has also been one of our biggest ever challenges. Overall we are very proud of what we did (and it’s not over). But it has catalysed learning about our operations, our relationships, and our identity. And of course, the fire came on top of the response that we had already made to attacks in London Bridge, Manchester, Finsbury Park and Westminster Bridge. It has been a truly unprecedented period.

How we responded

In brief, the Red Cross mobilised volunteers from the early hours of the night of the fire, working 24/7 for several weeks and deploying close to 1,000 trained volunteers in total. We ran a 24/7 support line, converted three football pitches worth of donated goods into cash for Grenfell through our shops, and raised £5.6m for the bereaved and hospitalised (which is being distributed through our partner London Emergencies Trust).

We influenced government to create extended leave-to-remain for those whose status was either irregular or they were caught up in the asylum system. We also called for them to ensure that benefits eligibility would not be affected by receipt of emergency grants.

Operationally, one of the biggest challenges was matching volunteers’ skills and capacity with the scale and depth of trauma being experienced by people in the community and leadership on the ground.

We have a pool of highly trained pyscho-social support volunteers accustomed to working in very challenging international situations. Many more volunteers have been selected for their empathy and trained to work in rest centres and services such as support at home and support to refugees.

But our capacity was stretched to the limit. To have enough people able to offer support at scale to very distressed people? This was way beyond what we needed to do for the terror attacks.

What we’ve learned

That we should have better coordinated with the community

In parallel to our own response, the voluntary and community sector and faith communities around the Grenfell Tower did an extraordinary job as first responders. They were on the ground from the beginning providing direct support to people affected, including those unlikely to come forwards to the authorities.

We reached out to some of the larger local organisations from the beginning to help coordinate fundraising. But it took us too long to reach out to the real grassroots groups and that cost us in terms of trust through the process. We are still trying to address this.

This may also have been the reason that more effort was put into managing donated goods rather than getting cash into the hands of people fast, as we would do in our international programming. There is a real lesson here about how we engage with a community that we do not know. We need to add people with different skills to our response and recovery teams. We also need to explore the extent to which our scale and brand give us convening power to help bring organisations together and respond dynamically to need.

That we need a contingency when those in charge fail

Like many disciplines, emergency response has a language all of its own with references to Gold, Silver and Bronze command. The Red Cross is part of this world and in our role as an ‘auxiliary’ to government we are written into the local resilience plan of every local authority in the country. This has been invoked in all the recent emergencies. It depends on command and control and discipline—every organisation has a clearly defined role, including the Red Cross.

But how should we handle a situation where the authorities are failing? At what point do we break ranks and ‘call it’ in a way that is also constructive and enables the working relationships that remain critical to continue to operate?

As well as our formal ‘auxiliary’ role, three of the seven Red Cross fundamental principles are ‘humanity’, ‘impartiality’ and ‘independence’. There is a built-in tension here—we need leaders who can navigate this ambiguity and make good judgements in the interests of the people we are here to serve.

That we must be as representative as possible

The Red Cross enjoys huge advantages because of our identity: we have been around almost 150 years, our brand is very well known, and we are changing massively to be relevant to the world of today and tomorrow.

But we have some challenges. There is a risk that in a very diverse community like Grenfell, an organisation with the words ‘British’ and ‘Cross’ in its title is confused with a Christian, establishment organisation. Yet we are completely impartial and our ambition is to harness our access to the ‘establishment’ in the service of people in crisis.

And there is no escaping the fact that with shining exceptions, such as our refugee services, we are nowhere near as diverse as we need to be in our volunteer base, our staffing or our leadership. We cannot be ‘of’ every community, but we can be much more representative of the population as a whole. That is why, as CEO, I am personally leading our inclusion and diversity strategy.

That donations in a disaster can be much better managed

Finally on fundraising, we don’t think the answer for domestic emergencies is a UK DEC as some have suggested. But there is a real challenge to improve coordination of fundraising efforts and distribution mechanisms.

Why we’ll act on these lessons

There is so much to learn from the tragedy and we are actively doing so now as we continue to work on behalf of Grenfell’s survivors.

Collectively, we must be careful not to develop policy and strategy purely on the basis of a hopefully very rare event like Grenfell. But we know there is much to do to improve community resilience, response and recovery planning anyway. We are absolutely committed to rising to this challenge and being the best we can possibly be in the service of people in crisis.

Image credit: Matt Percival