The police inspector in initial command of the Manchester Arena bombing response “quickly became overburdened by the number of tasks he had to undertake”, the public inquiry into the May 2017 atrocity found.
As Greater Manchester Police’s (GMP) force duty officer (FDO), Inspector Dale Sexton, became overwhelmed it led to a “direct impact on the effectiveness” of the response, inquiry chair Sir John Saunders said.
Sir John said: “It affected who received information, what resources were made available and the decisions of other commanders.”
He ruled he made an early “significant” mistake when he failed to declare a major incident – an error compounded by other GMP commanders until the situation was rectified at nearly 1am the next day.
Sir John also criticised the time it took for a tactical/silver commander to arrive at the scene some 52 minutes after the explosion.
Following erroneous reports of gunshots, Sir John said Mr Sexton correctly declared Operation Plato – a predetermined response to a marauding armed terrorist.
The GMP plan required him to share the declaration with other emergency services but he failed to so.
“The burden of his responsibilities as FDO meant that he overlooked it,” Sir John said.
“The failure to communicate the Operation Plato declaration had significant consequences. It affected the ability of the emergency services to work together by jointly understanding the risks.
“Op Plato required zones to be applied – the purpose to ensure emergency responders are protected from any terrorists who may be present.
“There was a substantial failure by GMP at every level of armed command in relation to the zoning of the Victoria Exchange Complex during the ‘golden hour’.
“By 10.57pm (26 minutes after the blast) the FDO was struggling to manage the different roles that he was required to fulfil. It was difficult for anyone to reach the FDO on the phone.”
Mr Sexton, now retired, told the inquiry he was not overwhelmed and he decided not to tell his emergency service counterparts as he feared they would not send key responders into the City Room.
But Sir John ruled: “I consider that Inspector Sexton was overburdened on the night. He simply had too much to do.”
The inquiry heard evidence about Exercise Winchester Accord in May 2016 which included a mock terror attack at Manchester’s Trafford Centre.
Sir John said the FDO in that exercise was also overwhelmed, particularly in the early stages, and it proved to be a “significant missed opportunity” to plan an adequate and robust response to a similar incident.
In 2016, an Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services’ (HMICFRS) inspection took place at GMP on its preparedness for a terror attack, particularly a marauding terrorist attack.
An inspector gave a “hot debrief” to an assistant chief constable in which he told her about the risk that the FDO would become overburdened in an Operation Plato situation and the need for something to be done about this urgently.
Sir John said: “It (GMP) had longstanding corporate knowledge of the risk that the FDO would become overburdened in the event that Operation Plato was declared.”
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He also criticised the fact there were three Operation Plato plans at GMP by May 22 2017.
Sir John said: “The evidence revealed that different officers, including those who performed vital roles, had different views about which plan was the one that ought to be followed on the night of the attack.
“The situation that GMP allowed to develop was dangerous. Even if it led to no loss of life on May 22 2017, it was capable of doing so.”
Sir John also noted GMP’s response to an information gathering request from Lord Kerslake who was tasked by Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham in July 2017 to review the emergency response locally.
He said: “More than nine months after the attack, the senior leadership of GMP had not realised that the FDO had not communicated the Operation Plato declaration to other emergency services.
“That was a highly significant fact which should have been identified by GMP at an early stage.”