Flooding one year on

  • The storms of 2013-14 saw major flooding across Somerset
  • Devon and Somerset Fire & Rescue Service was at the centre of the rescue mission
  • Lessons learned from the floods are being used to identify areas for improvement including greater clarity of communication

During the winter of 2013-14, the UK suffered significant rainfall and widespread flooding. Among the worst affected regions was the Somerset Levels, where an area 44 miles square was flooded for several months.

Dealing with an incident over such a wide geographical area, along with intense political, public and media interest, made this major incident unique for those tackling the problems.

Devon & Somerset Fire & Rescue Service was at the centre of the relief mission, with service staff working long, unsociable hours to deal with the crisis. Fire officers were taken off normal duties and support functions, prioritising flooding above other work. They were called to flood incidents across the Devon and Somerset area, including Dawlish, where the rail line was left dangling in the air by fierce seas, cutting off rail links to the south west.

Lessons learned

Sue Nugent, Insurance and Risk Manager at Devon & Somerset Fire & Rescue Service, says they received lots of positive feedback from the emergency service communities and the public for their work during the floods. “Excellent working relationships were built with other responders during the flooding, which will be beneficial should similar events occur,” she says.

All agencies have agreed that the response must be much quicker and inter-agency working must be improved

Sue Nugent, Insurance and Risk Manager at Devon and Somerset Fire & Rescue Service

Having recognised what went well and what needs to be corrected, Devon & Somerset Fire & Rescue Service has confirmed plans to make further improvements to its readiness for dealing with any future major flood events.

Other organisations can benefit from the lessons learned. There have been several public consultations and debriefs since then, which have all identified areas for improvement including greater clarity of communication.

“All agencies have agreed that the response must be much quicker and inter-agency working must be improved,” says Sue.

“One of the most positive elements to develop during the flooding was a greater engagement with the public. Clear communication links between the services and residents should ensure the views of local people are represented in the future – with supporting groups perhaps coordinating community messaging rather than public agencies.”

In Somerset, action has been taken to minimise the impact of future flooding. Around 8,000 metres of river has been dredged – at a cost of £6m – as part of the first phase of the new Somerset Flood Action Plan, coordinated by the county council.

A new Somerset Rivers Authority has also been set up to help reduce the likelihood, duration and impact of flooding in the county. The new authority will oversee the progress of the action plan to improve river channel maintenance and dredging to reduce flood risk over the next 20 years.

Perfect storm

Climate change, rising sea levels, increased development and budget cuts are now combining to create the perfect storm, with flooding appearing on the risk registers of many local authorities. 2014 was the year of the flood, and it focussed both central and local government attention on adaptation and mitigation.

Robin Powell, Chairman of Alarm, the risk-management association for professionals in public services and communities, and Corporate Risk and Insurance Manager at Sandwell Council, explains: “We often have to face emergencies such as flooding in our everyday working lives. The approach taken by Sue and the team at Devon & Somerset Fire & Rescue Service is an excellent example of cross-agency working.

“At the same time, it indicates the need to learn from and improve our resilience activities as a result of such incidents. It re-emphasises the importance of the review phase of the usual risk-management cycle.”

With flood damage costing the UK an estimated £1.1bn per year, and with more than 5.2 million – one in six – properties in England at risk of flooding from rivers, the sea or surface water, this is not an issue we can avoid.