Terrorist threat – Uncertainty offers little reassurance

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern recently declared that this country was unlikely to be a target of a major terrorist strike, a sentiment which possibly did not give comfort to everybody.

Unfortunately, the country's firefighters are not as sanguine as Mr Ahern, and are less than reassuring in their assessment as to how the country would cope with a Madrid-type attack. Quite simply, the country could not cope.

The Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) and the National Firefighters Committee (NFC) are worried about the readiness of the fire service to respond to a major disaster because their emergency response planning is in a "parlous state".

To put their concern in context, there are no national standards for dealing with something like the Dublin bus tragedy. Had it happened outside the capital, the inference is that the services would not have been capable of responding in a similar fashion.

Two years ago the Farrell Grant Sparks review into the fire service recommended that standards for the 37 separate fire authorities be set down.

It also recommended the establishment of a National Fire Authority (NFA) but it remains just that a recommendation. It is still under consideration, according to the Department of the Environment.

The review made it quite clear that our fire service was badly in need of modernisation. It categorically stated that the current regime "would not stand up favourably under the inevitable scrutiny and investigation which would follow a major fire or other major emergency incident with multiple casualties".

If even a major fire would challenge our fire service, then something on the scale of the Madrid bombings would completely overwhelm it.

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in the United States, the Government set up the Office of Emergency Planning and the Task Force on Emergency Planning, but what either of them is planning obviously comes within the scope of the Official Secrets Act.

Otherwise, why is it that the Chief Fire Officers Association, which will be at the forefront of any response to a major emergency, has received practically no information from either of those bodies?

It may be some consolation to them that they are represented, as are city and county managers, on an emergency planning sub-committee.

Possibly, Ireland's strategy in responding to a major threat will be to call a committee meeting.

Apart from such a facetious view of our lack of plans for a major emergency, it may be time that somebody persuaded the Taoiseach that one could actually happen.

Then, maybe, the proper resources will be put in place for all the emergency services to respond if called upon.

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