Nine agencies and over 180 personnel came together at Waterford Airport and five kilometres off the coast of Hook Head to help the emergency services assess how well they would work together and respond to this type of disaster.
It was the latest in a series of major emergency training exercises which take place about once a year and among those represented yesterday were the Irish Coast Guard, Civil Defence, RNLI, Air Corps, Army, Naval Service, National Ambulance Service, An Garda Síochána, and the Waterford Fire Services.
For the simulation, the naval service’s LÉ Eithne played the “role” of a passenger ferry which sustained an explosion in its engine room, and subsequent fire, with 50 army personnel from James Stephens Barracks in Kilkenny the “casualties”.
“It’s to see how all the agencies work together in the event of a major incident, which we’re replicating today,” operations manager with the Irish Coast Guard Declan Geoghegan said at Waterford Airport.
The exercise included flying the HSE’s marine ambulance service out to the scene of the “stricken” vessel to triage the passengers and assess who could be treated on board and who would need to be airlifted back to land.
Others were taken to land by lifeboats from Dunmore East and Kilmore Quay, while a “search” of the Suir estuary was also led by the Coast Guard.
Mr Geoghegan pointed out that the Coast Guard has replaced its fleet of Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopters with Sikorsky S92s in recent months and, from its bases in Waterford Airport, Dublin, Shannon and Sligo, the SAR craft can be anywhere in the country or along the shore within 30 minutes, while their range is up to 480 kilometres.
The “nightmare” scenario, he said, is a major incident 100 miles or more offshore, possibly in bad weather, such as a fire on a ferry with over 1,000 people on board.
“We would be looking at maybe calling in assets from other agencies, outside the jurisdiction, depending on how big the evacuation is.”
Waterford Airport chief executive Desmond O’Flynn said marine rescue was “part of a tradition” at the airport, which has hosted the services since the mid-1990s.
The services will meet in a few weeks to assess the success of the training operation and establish what lessons can be learned from the exercise.