Mike Adamson: What the Red Cross learned at Grenfell Tower

Michael Adamson Feb2015

Mike Adamson became chief executive of the British Red Cross in October 2014. Before that he was managing director of operations, responsible for the leadership of the British Red Cross’ UK and international programmes and its advocacy work. He previously held several other positions in the organisation between 1992 and 2003, including head of international programme development, director for the London and south-east region, and director of strategy, planning and information systems.

The human trauma arising from the Grenfell Tower fire will change the lives of those affected forever, almost entirely for the worse. Its knock-on effects are pervasive and insidious, risking undermining confidence in authority, not only in Kensington and Chelsea but everywhere where a vulnerable community or group are dependent on the authorities for their protection.

For the Red Cross, the response [to Grenfell] has been one of our biggest ever challenges.

For the Red Cross, the response has also been one of our biggest ever challenges. Overall we are very proud of what we did (and it’s not over). But it has catalysed learning about our operations, our relationships, and our identity. And of course, the fire came on top of the response that we had already made to attacks in London Bridge, Manchester, Finsbury Park and Westminster Bridge. It has been a truly unprecedented period.

How we responded

In brief, the Red Cross mobilised volunteers from the early hours of the night of the fire, working 24/7 for several weeks and deploying close to 1,000 trained volunteers in total. We ran a 24/7 support line, converted three football pitches worth of donated goods into cash for Grenfell through our shops, and raised £5.6m for the bereaved and hospitalised (which is being distributed through our partner London Emergencies Trust).

We influenced government to create extended leave-to-remain for those whose status was either irregular or they were caught up in the asylum system. We also called for them to ensure that benefits eligibility would not be affected by receipt of emergency grants.

Operationally, one of the biggest challenges was matching volunteers’ skills and capacity with the scale and depth of trauma being experienced by people in the community and leadership on the ground.

We have a pool of highly trained pyscho-social support volunteers accustomed to working in very challenging international situations. Many more volunteers have been selected for their empathy and trained to work in rest centres and services such as support at home and support to refugees.

But our capacity was stretched to the limit. To have enough people able to offer support at scale to very distressed people? This was way beyond what we needed to do for the terror attacks.

What we’ve learned

That we should have better coordinated with the community

In parallel to our own response, the voluntary and community sector and faith communities around the Grenfell Tower did an extraordinary job as first responders. They were on the ground from the beginning providing direct support to people affected, including those unlikely to come forwards to the authorities.

It took us too long to reach out to the real grassroots groups. That cost us in terms of trust.

We reached out to some of the larger local organisations from the beginning to help coordinate fundraising. But it took us too long to reach out to the real grassroots groups and that cost us in terms of trust through the process. We are still trying to address this.

This may also have been the reason that more effort was put into managing donated goods rather than getting cash into the hands of people fast, as we would do in our international programming. There is a real lesson here about how we engage with a community that we do not know. We need to add people with different skills to our response and recovery teams. We also need to explore the extent to which our scale and brand give us convening power to help bring organisations together and respond dynamically to need.

That we need a contingency when those in charge fail

Like many disciplines, emergency response has a language all of its own with references to Gold, Silver and Bronze command. The Red Cross is part of this world and in our role as an ‘auxiliary’ to government we are written into the local resilience plan of every local authority in the country. This has been invoked in all the recent emergencies. It depends on command and control and discipline—every organisation has a clearly defined role, including the Red Cross.

But how should we handle a situation where the authorities are failing? At what point do we break ranks and ‘call it’ in a way that is also constructive and enables the working relationships that remain critical to continue to operate?

How should we handle a situation where the authorities are failing? At what point do we break ranks?

As well as our formal ‘auxiliary’ role, three of the seven Red Cross fundamental principles are ‘humanity’, ‘impartiality’ and ‘independence’. There is a built-in tension here—we need leaders who can navigate this ambiguity and make good judgements in the interests of the people we are here to serve.

That we must be as representative as possible

The Red Cross enjoys huge advantages because of our identity: we have been around almost 150 years, our brand is very well known, and we are changing massively to be relevant to the world of today and tomorrow.

But we have some challenges. There is a risk that in a very diverse community like Grenfell, an organisation with the words ‘British’ and ‘Cross’ in its title is confused with a Christian, establishment organisation. Yet we are completely impartial and our ambition is to harness our access to the ‘establishment’ in the service of people in crisis.

We are nowhere near as diverse as we need to be in our volunteer base, our staffing or our leadership.

And there is no escaping the fact that with shining exceptions, such as our refugee services, we are nowhere near as diverse as we need to be in our volunteer base, our staffing or our leadership. We cannot be ‘of’ every community, but we can be much more representative of the population as a whole. That is why, as CEO, I am personally leading our inclusion and diversity strategy.

That donations in a disaster can be much better managed

Finally on fundraising, we don’t think the answer for domestic emergencies is a UK DEC as some have suggested. But there is a real challenge to improve coordination of fundraising efforts and distribution mechanisms.

Why we’ll act on these lessons

There is so much to learn from the tragedy and we are actively doing so now as we continue to work on behalf of Grenfell’s survivors.

We know there is much to do to improve … We are absolutely committed to rising to this challenge.

Collectively, we must be careful not to develop policy and strategy purely on the basis of a hopefully very rare event like Grenfell. But we know there is much to do to improve community resilience, response and recovery planning anyway. We are absolutely committed to rising to this challenge and being the best we can possibly be in the service of people in crisis.

Image credit: Matt Percival


  1. Very well worded response to what was a very difficult situation .

    I would like to add one further comment to what you have said in lessons to learn , as a ER volunteer I volunteered to help and was told that I would be added to a list which was being managed by the London team. I was not contacted , not even to say no we don’t need you

    I realise that things are not perfect but it left me quite disappointed

    • Hi Colin, thanks for your comment and for your offer to help during the response. As with any emergency, coordination and resource mobilisation can be challenging. In light of the Grenfell Fire response we will be looking at how we can do this more effectively and efficiently in the future. We’d be very happy to chat further at information@redcross.org.uk.

  2. This absolutely hit the nail on the head and I’m really pleased the senior management team clearly understand and take ownership of where we need to improve with regards to how we ‘gear up’ quickly but appropriately when shocking events like this take place.

    One comment really regarding our ‘identity’; whilst there is much that we can do to be more aware of how our name and logo are interpreted by various communities (and I think there’s a lot we could do or achieve tbh), there is also a huge sense of purpose and pride from many of us at the ‘coal face’ who are immensely proud of what we do, proud of our immediate teams and of the decency our line managers who more often than not take a democratic constructive inclusive team approach. Without this environment and drive, many of us wouldn’t be doing what we do.

  3. It’s so refreshing to see an organisation stand up and say, ‘this is where we could have done better and this is where we sent wrong’. Shows a genuine culture of seeking to always improve and to G-d forbid, be able to do it better if there’s a next time.

    Also pleased to see grass roots level organisations acknowledged as being as valuable as they always are, crisis or no crisis. Unfortunately, these are all too regularly undervalued and under-funded ahead of those ‘glossier’ organisations which can afford fundraisers and PR.

    Volunteers both with the BRC and at all the grass roots charities and locals involved – I am in awe of what you achieved at Grenfell.

  4. If a person in need can not appreciate a volunteer’s help if not the right (identity of your choice) — there is only one conclusion: the RECIPIENT of the much needed help is a racist. Stop making/creating a problem, when SO may are coming forth to help with open hearts. Incessant focus on this issue is divisive, demoralizing, **maddening, and unhealthy. Period.

  5. Great work – but a revolting level of ingratitude and indeed downright racism and Christianophobia by the recipients, if they are complaining about the overall ethnicity of helpers, and the sign of the cross.

    The sign of the cross is why they are in this country in the first place – and what is more it is a country that belongs to specific ethnic group which happens to be White, for its sins.

    The Aesop’s Fable about the Farmer and the Serpent comes to mind.

    Also, this gross ingratitude deeply wrongs the founder of the Red Cross, devout Calvinist Henry Dunant.

  6. Really? Complaining about our historical heritage again?

    Next time somebody rattles a red-cross bucket in my direction, I will feel the need to tell them that sorry, my money is too white and British for their charity. They should get a more diverse passer-by to chip something in.

  7. Excellent piece. Fascinating how these issues which are not new for international organisations or federations such as the Red Cross in their international humanitarian work really come into sharp focus when responding to events closer to our own doorstep.

  8. Is your statement regarding Grenfell residents’ political issues, with the words “British” and “Cross”, a projection of your own or do you have any evidence to support your claim? Given that you are alluding to implementing some form of discrimination policy, presumably in order to replace the British Christian element from your organisation, could you provide details of your evidence and also of the legality of your proposal? Thanks.

  9. What on earth is wrong with you people? Who cares what colour or religion you are? All that matters is that you do a fantastic job – and you do.

    Stop with this idiocy over diversity. But if you are that concerned then I presume Mike Adamson will be resigning forthwith and handing his job over to a black women. No? Thought not…

  10. “Auxiliary” emergency response is a critical necessity following significant catastrophes, whether they be accidents, acts of God, acts of war, or terrorism.

    Calling a civilian response “auxiliary” is in fact not reflective of reality. The ability of government to unilaterally respond to isolated, yet major events is impractical…so long as such events remain isolated. In the unfortunate event that such catastrophes become routine, then perhaps it might make sense for governments to maintain a standing army of first responders. But until such time, governments will continue to require a massive influx of volunteer and contractor personnel to augment the small number of government workers that provide day-to-day emergency response services.

    People who commit themselves to be trained and ready to help others during their greatest hour of need are the bright lights of humanity. Recognizing this, I myself have begun to develop the capabilities to apply my skill, experience and resources toward helping my fellow man in such dark hours.

    But alas, I now realize I must abandon this poisonous dream. For I am a white, American, Christian male. I thought that my military training, the multiple utility vehicles of my construction business, the vast array of rescue equipment I’ve acquired, as well as an unbreakable will to risk my property and my life in order to help others would be all that I would need to help during times of peril. But now I see, that unless the community I was supporting reflected my own skin tone and religious beliefs, I could only be causing them further harm, when they’ve already lost so much. I’m so glad I was able to learn from the senseless insensitivity of the British Red Cross, before I myself went out and selfishly victimized others with my American Christian whiteness.

  11. I agree that your response is brilliant and very honest. The Red Cross response was superb. I was released from my day job to volunteer on day 1 and I volunteered on the first Sunday. I offered rota support each weekend Bd during school holidays. I kept weekends free. I was never called up. I have trainjng as a psychotherapist, i specialized in trauma support. I have experience And training as a bereavement counsellor and manage a social emotional and behaviour support service for children young people and families in my day job. I have been volunteering with Red Cross over 6 years in fire and emergency support team – I was never called – but I kept weekend etc free. I know other very skilled and suitably experienced volunteers whose skillset was not utilized. I forgot to add that I had previously lived and worked in that community area…but No one asked or noted it.

    I saw brilliant response work and I am pleased to be part of an organization with such great values. Let’s ensure we all uphold them – on day 1 I met a man who was clutching some cladding. When I asked if it was heavy to carry he said it is all I have left of my home. We asked how we could help. He just wanted to know the way to the nearest open station so he could move on in his journey and go away. Let’s all remember the values of the Red Cross, forget the glory and just help others to move on. Well done all those who helped.

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