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A Guide For City-Led Response

Last updated:
22/04/2024
Publication Date:
28/03/2024
Content Type:

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Chapter 6: Preparing to Respond

When an incident such as a terror attack occurs, panic will spread and individuals will respond in unforeseen ways. While preparation will have its own limitations due to the unpredictability of human behaviour, it is important for local authorities to establish basic processes and systems for each aspect of the response. This will help minimise the potential for mismanagement and ensure that the city and its communities recover in a unified and effective way. This conclusion outlines the steps local authorities should take to prepare the post-incident response.


Developing Plans

This Guide provides a foundation for mayors and senior officials to develop their own tailored response plans.

Response Plans should be developed in collaboration with relevant actors and in consultation with beneficiaries where appropriate. They should be reviewed and practiced frequently to ensure all relevant stakeholders are well prepared. Annual table-top exercises and simulations can be useful to embed knowledge and expose flaws in the system, for example a one-day exercise to practice the response to a specific and evolving scenario, with all relevant staff involved. This should include national actors and local partners and include the pre-identification of roles and responsibilities should a crisis occur. Preparing and testing crisis response systems and approaches regularly will help cities identify where such strategies can be improved and ensure the different stakeholders involved are aware of changes and their responsibilities. 

This can, in turn, facilitate a swift, appropriate and effective multi-stakeholder response in the event of violence. 

In general, Response Plans should include:

  • Roles and responsibilities: ensure you have staff in charge of all tasks and steps described in the chapters.
  • Available resources and channels: for example, a communications plan should include a spreadsheet of local social media groups and channels with a large following, most popular radio stations, key community leaders, citizens’ associations, etc.
  • Prepared packages of measures: such as frequently asked questions, draft statements (or useful templates), dormant websites ready to be activated, hotlines and social media protocols.

Survey Exercises 

A survey of local stakeholders is useful for many areas of work, but particularly important for rapid response in times of crisis. Consider points of entry across the community, so that messages can reach the widest possible audience at speed. For communications, this includes more marginalised groups and individuals, who may otherwise be vulnerable to misinformation and disinformation or feel excluded from the recovery effort. Consider which methods of communication would resonate best for each group and establish ongoing contact with key figures where possible. 

For example:

  • Media outlets (according to their respective affiliations or readership)
  • Community leaders 
  • Faith leaders 
  • Sports teams
  • Family physicians and hospitals
  • Major employers
  • Social workers
  • Institutions (courts, universities, schools, trade union heads)
  • Large cultural centres (music venues, museums, theatres, stadiums)

Building Partnerships

Having multi-actor and national-local structures, relationships, partnerships and protocols in place prior to an attack helps facilitate an effective and timely response should there be an incident. Mayors and other local officials who have had to respond to incidents in their cities frequently underscore how important it is for cities to prepare and practice with all partners to face worst-case scenarios and not to underestimate how quickly incidents can escalate. In such cases, established and trusted partnerships become crucial for an effective response. 

Ideally, building partnerships will form part of the crisis response plans. The importance of these links is fourfold:

  • Partners can help you understand your audience, informing the content and format of your response.
  • Partners can support in disseminating your response to key groups and the general public. 
  • Partners may be willing to amend their own response, for example by promoting information solely to the police.
  • Partners can provide a ‘temperature check’ on how certain pockets of the community are responding to an attack. 

Partners may include:

  • Community liaison officers. Political officials, community leaders or members of civil society groups who have trust and credibility with residents.
  • Local media. Influence could relate to content, for example providing photographs and recordings to outlets as appropriate, or broader agreement on how to frame an evolving situation. It is important to consider ‘geo-ethnic’ media, which targets specific geographies or communities. In countries where media outlets are owned in part by political parties or ethnic groups, be prepared for messaging from them that may disrupt your communications strategies and prepare a response.
  • Private sector. Businesses can help amplify your response. Employers have unique and immediate access to their workforce and are sometimes more trusted than political institutions. They can therefore play a role in influencing reactions to such events.
  • Other cities. Cities that host important diasporas can help you access people who may be affected by events. This can be done through networks such as the Strong Cities Network and through community engagement (see Chapter 2).

All too often the media are perceived as “opponents”. But the institutions and the media need each other, and provide mutual feedback. To ensure the government has a favourable reception in terms of communication in a crisis situation, the media must be involved on a mutual basis. If not, the media will increasingly use informal sources. In small communities, these informal sources and rumours could become critically important.

SAFE-COMMS, The Terrorism Crisis Communication Manual for Public Authorities, March 2011, p. 13.

Again, we are reminded that public–private interactions are crucial and must be developed before an incident occurs. Developing those relations before an incident helps facilitate the flow of information during crises and may help ensure that the data conveyed to first responders is accurate, such as changes in floor plans and access routes.


Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Lessons from the Mumbai Terrorist Attacks – Parts I and II, U.S. Government Publishing Office, 8 and 28 January 2009

Learning From Experience

Following a crisis, a structured debriefing process called an After Action Review (AAR) can be useful to help prepare for future crises. The process, developed by the U.S. Army, calls for leaders to assess the incident and response, and draw out lessons learned. An AAR should be dual-focused: it should both identify opportunities to prevent a future crisis and improve on the plans in place for response. In 2020, the US Department of Justice and National Police Foundation published a guide to conducting AARs, which may be useful for city administrations looking for information: How to Conduct an After Action Review.

Examples of AARs include: 

Local and national governments may also appoint independent evaluators or commissions to review a significant event. 

Examples include: 


Prepared to Respond

While no city is ever fully prepared to respond to an attack such as the one that occurred in Boston in 2013, the city’s rapid medical response was in part enabled by more than a decade of efforts by the medical community to build, sustain and exercise its emergency-preparedness programmes.

Every year, the medical community would review relevant literature to learn from others who have faced such events. For example, Boston had previously hosted symposia on planning for and responding to terrorist attacks. Speakers from the cities of Israel, London, Madrid and Mumbai had shared their experiences in responding to a mass casualty event. 

This knowledge had been integrated into planning for special events, such as the marathon. The nature of the Boston Marathon meant that medical resources were assembled and staged along the marathon route, and staffed with team of professionals, including first responders, physicians, nurses, etc.

Boston followed carefully crafted and exercised plans, integrating lessons learned from mass casualty events in cities around the world, and training staff repeatedly in implementation.

Be Prepared — The Boston Marathon and Mass-Casualty Events | NEJM

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