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Simulated chemical blast to test emergency response plan

Peter Daly, chief emergency management officer, HSE South, Karen Neville, S-HELP coordinator, and Andrew Pope, development co-leader, UCC. Picture: Tomas Tyner

Plans for emergency readiness and response to a biological incident in Israel or a chemical explosion near the Northern Ireland border are being forensically prepared by Irish researchers.

The results of their efforts should be seen in the next two years as the team from University College Cork put their plans into action with major practice runs to see if the software system can be expanded elsewhere.

The project recently secured €3.5m in EU funding and comes on foot of the initial design by the group, led by business information systems lecturer and researcher Karen Neville.

She explains that the system should mean command and control centres will have live interaction between ambulance and fire crews, police and health officials on the ground through their phones or computer tablets.

By linking up all the relevant agencies, the idea is that the authorities can further improve their existing emergency action plans, like those regularly activated in exercises at county or regional basis around Ireland.

But crucially, the new system will also work between different countries, using detailed information down to the first-aid skills of first responders in each state or whether one country’s fire- fighting equipment matches the other’s hydrants.

The UCC researchers’ initial design led to their selection to head up the S-HELP (Securing Health Emergency Learning and Planning) consortium, and more detailed development plans are being drafted since last month.

"We will be doing three exercises, one will simulate a chemical explosion near the border with the North, a major flood in England — probably in London, and a deliberate or accidental biological event in Israel," said Dr Neville.

She is managing director of UCC’s centre for security management research, which is partnering with the HSE, Northern Ireland’s Public Health Agency and Israel’s national aid society Magen David Adom. The international S-HELP group also includes three private companies, three academic institutions in Austria and Sweden, and also hopes to involve Red Cross and other voluntary bodies.

The system they are working on should also allow greater harnessing of information from social media, so emergency services can be directed by co-ordinators to or from places or incidents.

Other aspects will involve integrating live weather information, mapping likely flows for floodwaters, and allowing better planning for the aftermath of catastrophes. This should mean public agencies can start examining the longer-term impacts as soon as a major emergency begins if, for example, large populations have to be moved to a different area, or the knock-on effects for other health providers if hospitals need to cope with large numbers of emergency admissions.