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.”
Maguire defines a major emergency as “something beyond the normal capability of the services to respond”. Every day the State’s services respond effectively to ordinary emergencies. We live in a temperate zone not prone to natural disasters. We have no nuclear facilities. In the past few years our national emergencies have included severe weather – snow and flooding – and one case of volcanic ash disrupting travel.
The most recent drill carried out at the National Emergency Co-ordination Centre was not about a nuclear war, but about a fictional train derailment in Carlow. “All the key players were involved, and it was co-ordinated from here,” says Spain.
The enemy of good crisis planning is panic, as well, potentially, as articles like this one, which present unlikely scenarios and make frequent use of exclamation marks (see below). A few years ago the Office of Emergency Planning sent a booklet to every home in the country called Preparing for Major Emergencies. It was informed by market research.
Spain recalls watching a focus group through one-way glass. “The surprising thing was that people didn’t actually want to know the details of the plans. They just wanted to know that people had given thought to preparing those plans and that things weren’t prepared on the hoof. What they were looking for was reassurance.”
I grew up in an age of nuclear hysteria. Terrifying TV programmes like Threads and When the Wind Blows depicted postnuclear societal breakdown, radiation poisoning, starvation and, ultimately, death.
Governmental nuclear-event planning has always seemed farcical. Manuals from the 1950s show people making bomb shelters with their doors, brushing radiation from cows and avoiding annihilation by curling into a ball like a hedgehog.
In 2001, the State distributed iodine tablets in a wake of hysteria surrounding Sellafield, only to find itself facing another wave of hysteria when those tablets went out of date in 2005. (Incidentally, iodine tablets are nowadays thought to be useful only for those living within 10-20km of the affected plant).
“The National Emergency Plan for Nuclear Accidents has existed since the early 1990s,” says Dr Ciara McMahon, director of environmental surveillance and assessment at the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland. “It was put in place after Chernobyl.”
Nowadays, the main threat is not nefarious trigger-happy communists but accidents at British nuclear plants, something that McMahon makes sound entirely manageable.
The main advice in the emergency plan is to “go in, stay in and tune in” until the radioactive plume has passed by. (They suggest this might be for only a few hours.) McMahon says 90 per cent of radiation issues in the event of any nuclear emergency abroad would come from consumption of contaminated food.
“If you have radioactive air passing by it’s only for a short timeframe. But food can get contaminated, because the grass is contaminated and the cows eat the grass, so the milk and meat get contaminated. We would work very closely with the Department of Agriculture and the Food Safety Authority and the Department of the Environment. A lot of it would be about giving the cows different food to eat – stored feed or feed we buy in.”
In cinema, pandemics range from realistically rendered flu viruses (as seen in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion) to eye-bleeding diseases spread by unrepentant monkeys and cured by Dustin Hoffman (Outbreak) to zombie apocalypses (Day of the Dead).
“There’s a national pandemic plan, which is currently being revised by the Department of Health with our assistance,” says Gavin Maguire of the HSE. This involves the HSE’s Health Protection Surveillance Centre working with international bodies to observe what’s emerging around the world. Maguire talks about the speed with which swine flu spread from Mexico and the rapid spread of Spanish flu in 1918. “A virulent strain of pandemic can spread very quickly,” he says.
The plan suggests that during a confirmed pandemic people should stock up on a week’s food and supplies, a thermometer, paracetamol or ibuprofen. They should also listen to news updates and read public-health notices about hygiene. A telephone GP hotline would also be set up to take pressure off GPs and emergency rooms. In extreme scenarios, the World Health Organisation might restrict international travel.
Maguire notes the importance of antivirals and vaccines. He says we have a stockpile of the former and the time a disease takes to spread would give us time to order more as needed.
“The ultimate response and the speed at which drugs can be produced is ever improving,” he says. “Unfortunately a vaccine cannot be ordered in advance because you have to wait until the strain emerges . . . But technologies are emerging that will allow them to be produced far more rapidly. That could be a game changer, because you could get everybody vaccinated at the very start.”
Most importantly, Maguire says, people should “remain calm” in the event of a pandemic. So they shouldn’t head off to the hills with shotguns and canned goods? “No,” he says, firmly.
Big-screen natural disasters include Dante’s Peak (Pierce Brosnan fights a volcano) and 2012 (that’s this year!) in which a geological disaster rips up the face of the earth. Any tsunami that hit Ireland would cause a bit of coastal flooding, “probably no more extreme than the events in Ringsend a few years ago”, according to Koen Verbruggen, acting director of the Geological Survey.
“As a geologist I’d like to be living in a more active country in some ways, but the reality is that it’s fairly quiet here,” he says, a little wistfully. “An earthquake off Portugal or a landslide off the Canaries could generate a wave, but nothing like the Fukushima event. Geologically we’re in a very quiet part of the world.”
Nonetheless, in June, tremors from a minor earthquake were felt off the coast of Mayo, and tsunamis are not unheard of in these parts. “In 1755, an earthquake destroyed Lisbon, and there are anecdotal and historical records that that caused damage in southern Ireland, in places like Bandon – washed-out bridges, that sort of thing. We’ve done modelling on what would happen if we got an exact repeat of that incident, and the maximum possible impact is a 4m high wave on the southern Irish coast.”
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be prepared. The Office of Public Works recently mapped areas in danger of flooding throughout the island and we’re well served with inland earthquake monitors and seabound tide gauges. The Geological Survey also represents Ireland on a Unesco group called the North East Atlantic and Mediterranean Standard Warning System, part of an international alert system much improved since 2004’s Indonesian tsunami.
Indeed, if some tsunami-related flooding were on the way, “we’d even have a little bit of time to prepare for it”, says Verbruggen.
It’s happened before (800 years, etc). But according to the Department of Defence any plan it might have in the event of an invasion is classified.
In dystopian melodramas such as City of Men and Soylent Green, food shortages lead to riots and corporate-sponsored cannibalism. “Ireland produces nine times more food than it needs,” says Paul Dillon, head of corporate
affairs at the Department of Agriculture, nipping those notions in the bud. “We’ll never be short of meat or milk because we produce large volumes of those. We could conceivably have shortages of certain things but not a critical shortage.”
He then explains how emergency planning ensures food gets distributed during severe weather, before adding: “The main principle behind the common market was to make sure there’d never be food shortages again, and that philosophy has pertained for the past 40 years or so.” That’s comforting.
Irish food emergencies are more likely to revolve around sporadic outbreaks of animal diseases, such as foot-and-mouth, something the State has quite a good record of dealing with. “We have our plans for animal-disease emergencies like foot-and-mouth and swine flu and bird flu . . . We have our systems for early warning, detection, follow-up and control,” says Dillon. He mentions a recent food-health emergency exercise undertaken under the aegis of the Food Safety Authority.
“We’re prepared,” he says.