Published: 01/09/2005, Volume II5, No. 5971 Page 26

On 21 July, primary care trust nursing director Wendy Thomas spent an afternoon shadowing Metropolitan Police Newham borough commander Mick Johnson to try to work out how health might reduce crime rates. But the day was to take a dramatic twist

The afternoon began with a personnel meeting. This was an opportunity to understand the similarities between the police and the health service in the challenges of staff rotation and illness.

Interesting, but uneventful. At that stage no-one knew that an attempted attack on London's transport network was about to change the experience completely.

After about five minutes, the desk sergeant appeared and whispered something to the senior officers. They all ran towards the door. I picked up what remained of my tea and followed. I asked if I could go with them. 'Yes you can, ' I was told, 'but keep up, this place is like a rabbit warren.' We ran down corridors and two flights of stairs to the control room. By the time I arrived, breathless and with tea slopping everywhere, there was a hush with only the blinking of monitors, showing where patrol vehicles were located in the borough, and an officer directing colleagues on the streets.

An alert had been received and there were suspects who may or may not have been involved in incidents being pursued in Newham. Intelligence suggested further terrorist attacks had been planned for London on that afternoon and the station was now on amber alert - meaning critical and imminent danger.

It was a surreal situation. I watched, fascinated by the blinking of the cars and the communication between the control room and patrol officers scrolling up the monitor.

Mick stood, watched, listened and gave direction when needed. He was focused on minimising risk to the public and his officers. Directions on the steps to take were passed to the officer talking to colleagues at the scene, but sometimes it seemed she knew what he was thinking and offered direction over her headset, with Mick just nodding in agreement.

Superintendent Andy McKechnie updated the commander on the staffing situation and advised that all officers were to remain on duty until further notice.

A Gold Command emergency response meeting had been planned for 4pm. Andy, who was in control of operations, now wore full uniform and body armour, joking that he had drawn the short straw to attend the potential incident if necessary. I wasn't laughing.

I have been a nurse for 23 years and have worked in wards, theatres and accident and emergency. I've seen many things. But on that day I was a member of the public who had the privilege of watching a real situation unfold. It was fascinating to see the skill, leadership and knowledge demonstrated by these officers in a potentially dangerous situation.

Exactly two weeks earlier, on 7 July, Newham PCT had been put on major incident alert, as had all NHS organisations in London. I was a member of the team in our command and control centre. I wonder if we would have appeared as in control of the situation as the police did to me two weeks later.

We returned to the commander's office to receive an intelligence update.

Unbelievably, another incident alert came through. We raced back down the stairs to the control room. Once again the hush was palpable. And again the directions came from the commander and his team on how to handle the situation. Within five minutes it became clear that this was less serious and a chief inspector was sent to the scene.

The thing I shall remember is that communication was instant and everything seemed to happen so fast.

When I looked at my watch it was 4.05pm. It seemed like a lifetime of holding my breath, watching monitors, and running down corridors.Had I really been sipping tea in the canteen just 90 minutes ago?

Wendy Thomas is director of nursing and clinical governance at Newham PCT.