Exercise Unified Response: Tower block collapses at Waterloo Station

Exercise Unified Response prepares the emergency services and the European Civil Protection Mechanism for large-scale urban disasters

The collapse of a tower block into Waterloo Underground Station buried eight carriages full of passengers in 1,000 tonnes of rubble.

It was then a race against time for emergency responders to dig through the debris blocking the only entry point to reach the 2,500 casualties trapped inside the carriages.

Thankfully, the wounds were the work of 100 makeup artists, the cramped network of tunnels was built from shipping containers in the disused turbine hall of Dartford’s Littlebrook Power Station, and the desperate screams of the passengers were from budding actors from the local area.

This scenario was part of Exercise Unified Response - the largest disaster simulation exercise in Europe – taking place over four days between 29 February and 3 March 2016.

Designed to test the activation of strategic co-ordination arrangements in the event of a complex disaster with mass casualties, the exercise involved multiple agencies including the emergency services, public safety agencies and local authorities, not just from the UK, but also from countries across Europe.

A European dimension

The groundwork for Exercise Unified Response began in 2013, when the London Fire Brigade Emergency Planning team put together a bid for €1million co-funding from the European Union to test the implementation of the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism.

Following approval and funding, London Fire Brigade worked on behalf of the London Resilience Partnership (LRP) and alongside national and international agencies to demonstrate how it would mount an effective emergency response to an urban mass-casualty disaster.

The objectives of the scenario included:

  • Initiating and implementing the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism
    As part of the exercise, the UK evaluated its resources and decided more support was required. The EU Civil Protection Mechanism received the request through the UK’s official channels (Cabinet Office and Civil Contingencies Secretariat).and the Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) was then established.

  • Planning for subterranean disasters
    The testing environment with just one entry point required effective coordination to process the casualties.

  • Sharing learnings across Europe
    The exercise included dedicated observers who recorded the decisions being made on-site. A comprehensive debrief will follow the exercise, and its findings will be shared with participating states and the European Commission to drive further improvements in emergency response and recovery procedures.

  • Integrating assistance from specialist teams
    Exercise Unified Response tested response procedures including protocols for sharing information (e.g. missing person information) between the UK and EU participating states.

Meeting communications requirements

With so many agencies coming together from across the UK and abroad, it was vital that personnel could communicate with one another over the Airwave Network to keep the situation controlled and co-ordinated.

"Airwave radios were used extensively during Exercise Unified Response as a communications tool at the live site for exercise management, safety, evaluation temas, and live players from all agencies in various different roles," said Peter Cowup, the recently retired Assistant Commissioner for London Fire Brigade who was Exercise Director. "The satellite link provided by Airwave that provided access into their network proved reliable in operation and there were no reported issues during the whole of the three day event."

“What made this event unique was the location,” said Stuart Mitchell, London Engineering manager at Airwave. “London Fire Brigade had created a very real replica of Waterloo Station, but in a relatively suburban setting. This meant that our solution needed to protect the local blue light services by absorbing the event traffic.

“The challenge was to design a solution that protected the business as usual Network in the local area whilst providing the coverage required to meet the needs of the event.”


To simulate the communications environment in London and accommodate the increased volume of traffic in the Dartford area, Airwave deployed two of its specialist vehicles to the scene.

“We considered many delivery options before deciding on a two-stage underlay/overlay approach,” Mitchell explained. “This comprised two sites in the same location but independent of each other, one being the main site (provided by a Mobile Base Site) and then a secondary site in the form of a Site Replacement Vehicle. Virtually all the traffic was processed by the main site and the secondary site sat in reserve to provide additional support if there were any traffic surges or faults.”

"Using the four base radio VSAT link ensured that the fixed Airwave infrastructure that serves the Dartford area was not adversely impacted by the increased radio traffic that Exercise Unified Response inevitably created, given the scale of the exercise and the large number of responders involved," said Cowup.

"There were no reports of any queuing or delays in using Airwave radios to talk either on or off site during the exercise, even though, at one stage, 35 talkgroups were in simultaneous use."

“Supporting our customers in exercises such as Unified Response is a key aspect of the emergency planning programme for Airwave,” said Liza-Marie Turner, Business Continuity & Emergency Planning Manager at Airwave. “We plan and provide communication options to enable exercise play on the ground, and also make use of the exercise internally by engaging with the national emergency alert for telecoms (NEAT) and the various levels of command. Exercises like this enable our major incident management processes to be tested in a safe environment.”

“Having the opportunity to regularly test our incident management and business continuity processes means they have matured well, and we’ve been working with our customers on exercises like Unified Response for many years. Teams in Airwave are able to draw on their experience not only to offer the most appropriate communications set-up for the exercise, but they can also look back on when the Network has been used in real emergencies and simulate the comms environment a user would encounter if they found themselves in a similar situation in real life.” 

The next steps

Of course, the conclusion of the simulation did not mark the end of Exercise Unified Response, and the next stage of delivering a detailed debrief has already begun.

The learnings will be compiled into a report that will be shared across the European Union to highlight good practice and areas for improvement in mass-casualty scenarios, to shape future disaster response across the EU.