Exercise Orange Tree: the invisibility of exercising in full public view.

The UK held exercise Orange Tree on 30 September 2010 on the River Thames in the heart of London, simulating a boat collision, with bodies in the water. This was in full public view, pre-announced, and very obvious to by-standers – but that made surprisingly little difference.

The exercise was announced in some detail beforehand. A (eg a Notice to Mariners from the Port of London Authority (PLA) gave the precise time and location, together with VHF channels being used and call signs. The Marine and Coastguard Agency (MCA), who organised it, put out a press release: “A major search and rescue exercise involving Her Majestys Coastguard, Metropolitan Police, Fire and Ambulance services, Port of London Authority, the RNLI and local authorities will take place on the River Thames on Thursday 30th September, starting at 20.30 hours. The exercise, which is being directed by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, will simulate a collision between a passenger vessel and a commercial vessel. It will take place in the vicinity of Tower Bridge. The exercise will commence with an emergency message to London Coastguard Operations Room. From that point, the Coastguard will task and co-ordinate various resources including RNLI lifeboats, fire and police boats, and the exercise will continue until all passengers are accounted for. Once the passengers are ashore, police, ambulance and local authorities will arrange for their care and processing through a survivor reception centre. The exercise has been designed to test LESLP (London Emergency Services Liaison Panel) procedures as applied to a major incident on the River Thames. The panel ensures a partnership approach between all the relevant agencies in the planning for, and the response to, a major incident of whatever kind.”

Bear in mind that the river is being used more for traffic these days, and there was a major tragedy in 1989 when 51 people drowned on the Thames after two boats collided quite near where Orange Tree took place, so this was a very sensible exercise to hold. (There have of course been similar exercises since 1989, eg in 2006.)

The exercise was lightly reported by alternative media, eg Demotix, a local web site SE1, local site Docklands24 and a trade web site. These reports were all based on press releases.

There is a page on Flickr, though with only one photo. Facebook has posts from Chiswick and Tower lifeboat stations, both of whom took part.

Twitter has 20 plus references to the exercise. Some are tweets from news organisations (eg both Demotix and SE1, as well as TowerHamletsNow and LBSouthwark, both run by local councils) or specialist bodies (eg the MCA, Safety at Sea International, a magazine, and Fairplay 1883, another magazine/ web site.

Other tweets seem to be from members of the public who have no special interests but just saw the helicopters etc. (eg Phill Dye, whose bio says ” I like to be other people. I am MUFC. I have a dog called Chester who we rescued from Battersea.” or ComicMuse or Melph, whose bio says: “LAS EMD and British Red Cross volunteer. Level 80 Night Elf Druid. Ginger. Veggie. Ping! name Melphster”.

Two themes emerge:
1. people passing on warnings/ alerts. (For instance it is mentioned on Lonely Planet UK (text: ” If you see helicopters and smoke on the Thames near Tower Bridge this evening, dont be alarmed” comes after “The World Curry Festival takes place this weekend in Leeds” and before “I am compiling a list
of the best lesser known pubs in #London-send me your suggestions”. Bio: ” Hi, Im Laura tweeting all the inside info from the Lonely Planet London office, along with travel news and tips for UK travellers.”)
2. people who saw it (only one: ComicMuse: ” the helicopter at the Thames is an exercise”, after “Only a few hours left to register or check your existing registration for Glasto 2011 tix (both close 9am Friday)” and before “FakeAPStylebook Do you hate your readers? Put asterisks in your stories that dont lead to any footnotes.”

Afterwards, the RNLI posted a video on YouTube. (The quality of this is very poor, as it was shot under difficult conditions on a RIB. Most of the first half consists of a blue light flashing on the back of two white helmets. Later, some heavy things are dragged from the water, though you cant see what they are. There is no explanation or commentary, and no titles.)

The RNLI main site has a press release simply recording the fact that the exercise took place, and saying: “It was a really useful exercise for all concerned and, although the Maritime and Coastguard Agency have yet to hold a full debrief, we will be looking carefully to see what, if any, lessons can be learned.” As of 3 October, the MCA website has no reference to it. (I will keep an eye on this to see if any fuller report is ever published.)

The PLA has a press release saying it will take place, but no report that it did. I cant see any press releases on either the Metropolitan Police or the London Fire Brigade sites.

Before the exercise in 2006 the MCA offered media facilities. They dont seem to have done so this time; possibly there was little use made of them. In 2006 they offered MCA and Police helicopter videos to broadcasters. In 2010 these seem to have sneaked out via Youtube rather than been offered around.


1. once you announce something a number of people will pick it up on social media. However it is difficult to judge what value this adds, since they are often tweeting to unlikely audiences. Did the tourists or alternative Londoners who presumably follow Lonely Planet flock to see the exercise? The Tower RNLI Facbook site entries were liked by 2 people and had one comment, which was basically an operational one: ” Mayday mayday… Matt ,Be on the lookout for D/stno Steve marsh from london heliport Rescue Firefighting Service. He will be in Attendance this evening with his camera and note book “.

2. the mainstream media seem to have ignored it, perhaps because no facilities were offered, but perhaps becasue of exercise fatigue. No mentions at all on Google News, apart from the local sites I listed who simply carried press releases with little or no editing. There just arent the journos out there to generate original stories – its all about moving content around and re-branding it.

3. Scarcely any mention from people who saw it and wondered what was going on. (There are so many exercises and so much use of blue lights in London these days that nobody seems to notice any more.)

4. there are specialist media aggregators out there, who will pick up and carry stories if they fit their area of interest (usually local, or a subject area); but there are so many of these that you would have to be looking in order to see them. If you lived in Tower Hamlets or Southwark you might have seen the Twitter sites, but not if you lived somewhere else and happened to be passing through the area at the time. So if you wanted to find out about any exercises anywhere in London, for example, youd have to cover all the local area sites, and shipping, tube, railway, traffic, airport, etc, subject sites as well.

5. nobody seemed to care very much. Of course, if anything had gone wrong, the information infrastructure was probably out there, ready. The writer and/or photographer from Demotix, who took the trouble to turn up, would have had a scoop on his/their hands – not to mention a few people who popped up from nowhere with cameraphones.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *