Storm waves crashing against a harbour wall

David Taylor, British Red Cross

What does an emergency response officer do? 

I've been doing this for 30 years and there's no such thing as regular or common when it comes to emergencies. In the last year, I have been at Manchester Airport welcoming Afghan refugees, and I've dealt with a terrorist incident at Liverpool Women's Hospital. From a weather perspective, I've dealt with Storm Arwen in November 2021 and the July 2022 heatwave. It's a different thing every time.  

My role is about making sure we've got all the necessary resources - be that equipment or volunteers - lined up, ready for the next emergency, whatever that may be.  

How does the weather throughout the year impact what you do? 

Until recently, it used to be that the severe and impactful weather – like heavy rain resulting in flooding - was only in the winter. What has happened of late is the storms, as in the high winds, have increased in intensity, we’re also seeing issues with extreme heat, and we had a red weather warning for extreme heat affecting our area last year. We've never had one before. Impactful weather now appears to be a twelve-month operation.  

Which weather types are particularly impactful for your work? 

With the July 2022 heatwave we could plan our response because the Met Office let us know five or six days in advance that it was going to happen. 18 volunteers delivered 3,600 bottles of water to ambulance crews in over ten A&E departments across the northwest during July and August. Because we knew when the worst heat would occur, the heatwave was relatively easy to deal with in that sense. 

As are what we call ‘rising tide events.’ The Met Office might say on a Monday, 'a low-pressure system will result in a really wet and windy weekend. That gives us four or five days to work with partners to draw up plans, work out who is going to be affected and where we need to be. 

It's harder when it's unpredictable. Storm Arwen was a case in point, because that red weather warning was over Northumberland, but we ended up being really badly hit in Cumbria. There was an unusual funnelling effect down the valleys in the Lake District and power lines, BT lines and mobile phone masts were taken out. People not only had no power, but they had no way of telling anybody and we had no way of contacting them so we had to go knocking on doors. With tens of thousands of people without power for days on end in winter conditions we had to respond very quickly without much planning or preparation time.  

So, getting as much notice as possible from the Met Office is absolutely invaluable. We keep a very close eye on the forecasts all the time.   

Where do you get the weather information from?  

We use Hazard Manager which is the Met Office forecasting tool for the emergency response community. It's absolutely excellent. It gives all the publicly available information but at a more granular level.  

An example was in February 2022 when we had three back-to-back storms (Dudley, Eunice and Franklin). We were able to track where the Met Office, in conjunction with the Environment Agency, were predicting the problems were going to be, which meant we could move resources around proactively focusing our plans in specific areas.  

Why do you rely on the Met Office above and beyond any other forecast provider?  

It's the reliability and the local nature of the Met Office. They have a reputation that we can rely on and a proven track record. The Met Office tends to provide the most accurate reflection of what's actually happening and the speed at which the forecasts are updated means that we know how to respond.  

The team is signed up to getting alerts on our phones, laptops, by email, by text, so we know within minutes of the warning coming out what colour it is and where it is. There are weeks of the year where I spend hours focusing on the latest weather updates.  

How accurate do you find the forecasts when you're working from them?  

In the main, I find Met Office forecasts extremely accurate and they are only getting better.  Supercomputers are now able to process at a far more local level than they ever have been before. It's fascinating how they're able to add data on top of multiple layers which provides us with an extremely useful, accurate picture. It's as accurate as we can get is the simple answer.  

Which aspect of the forecast do you find most useful for your work?  

First, the presented ‘Week Ahead’ forecast tells us what to look for over the next week and includes mentions of what the Met Office is keeping an eye on. Whether that’s a hurricane moving up the east coast of the States or a change in the jet stream. If there's something the Met Office thinks is coming our way, they generally give a lot of notice.  

When it gets nearer to the time, it's about the details – for example knowing the snow is only going to fall above 200 metres - the Met Office is absolutely spot on with this.  

As we continue to see climate change impact our weather, how important is the Met Office data?  

The flooding in Carlisle in 2005 was described as a once in a 1,000-year flood and was the first Cumbrian flooding incident that the British Red Cross had been involved in. No-one thought there was a need to plan for future events but four years later we had the Cockermouth flooding which was even worse. That was a real wakeup call, putting weather right at the top of our agenda.  

We have done a huge amount of preparation and bought a lot of equipment that we could use to deploy around the county and run rest centres on behalf of the local authorities. It is strategically positioned in different parts of the county so that volunteers don’t have far to drive to fetch it and then respond.  

Climate change is impacting us now, as the Met Office tells us daily, and extreme weather is becoming more extreme. Where we used to have 100 mm of rain, for example, we now see 200 mm. Putting together our local knowledge, knowledge of the impacts from climate change and the Met Office data means we can prepare intelligently. That's precisely what we did with the July 2022 heatwave, the sort of heatwave that had only impacted mainland Europe before. To have 40 degrees heat in the UK was unheard of. 

If these incidents are becoming more frequent, we’ve got to work out the best way to work together to respond to them.