Famine! Plague! Tsunami! The one thing Ireland won't do is . . .
What would the State do in an emergency, and what are the most likely threats to national security? We meet Ireland’s masters of disasters to find out
AT THE LOBBY of Agriculture House, a man at the front desk can’t find the number for the Office of Emergency Planning. Another man doesn’t think Brian Spain, the director of the Office of Emergency Planning, who I’ve come here to meet, even operates from the building. They discuss this for a few minutes while rooting around for the piece of paper with phone numbers on it (“It’s always going missing!”), before one of them says, “Right!” and takes me along a corridor, up a lift and to the correct door. His key card won’t open it. What if it was an emergency, I think, but Spain, a calming presence, comes to get me and I pull myself together.
You may have seen shots of the National Emergency Coordination Centre during news briefings at the time of the volcanic ash cloud or the extreme weather events of the past few years. It is not, as depicted in disaster films, in a bunker 100m beneath the Dáil but on the second floor of a central Government building. (“The space was available,” says Spain. “We were based in Kildare, but it was thought that it made more sense to be closer to government”.)
It is, at first glance, an underwhelming open-plan office, with conference and briefing rooms attached. This belies what is, in fact, a sophisticated communication system designed so the lead department in any emergency can come in and instantly plug into a national network. Communication is everything in times of emergency.
“A number of years ago the Radiological Protection Institute and the Department of the Environment conducted a fairly big exercise on our plan for a nuclear incident,” says Spain. “One of the recommendations that came out of that exercise was the need for a suitable location to manage a major emergency.”
“Is there an underground bunker at all?” I ask, hopefully.
“No,” says Spain. “This is not designed as a nuclear bunker, and all the advice we have is that if there was a nuclear incident abroad we wouldn’t need a nuclear bunker here.”
One thing that is in keeping with Hollywood depictions of disaster is the fail-safes they have for power outages. “This is totally power- and telecommunications-independent of the rest of the building,” says Spain. “If the power goes out we go on to the Department of Agriculture generator. Then we have another generator down below. Then a second generator – and as a final failsafe we have a plug in the wall where the Defence Forces can roll up with a mobile generator to plug in.
“Basically the only thing that could put us out of action here is if we physically couldn’t get into the building. And there are even plans for that,” he adds, lest I’m worried.
A Framework for Major Emergency Management, published in 2006, established a clear hierarchy in times of crisis. Departments were assigned leadership in different types of emergency management (the lead departments for 41 types of emergencies are clearly laid out), and emergencies could be scaled up from local to regional to national emergencies.
The approach we take to major emergencies is what Dr Caroline McMullan calls an “all hazards” approach. McMullan teaches on the emergency management master’s course at Dublin City University, and they work closely with the Office of Emergency Planning.
“We don’t do the kind of individual scenario planning that you’re talking about,” she says. (I wanted to know about specific training for pandemics, nuclear disasters and the like.) “We give people the skills to respond in any emergency. So what you have are transferable skills that allow you to respond regardless of the cause of the emergency.”
Gavin Maguire, the head of emergency planning at the Health Service Executive, agrees. “You can’t and shouldn’t plan for every possible scenario, because you’ll end up with multiple plans,” he says. “So you plan an ‘all hazards’ approach and ensure that each party has generic plans that would let them respond to a range of scenarios at national, regional and local level.”