How would Suffolk cope in a crisis?

The county may never have had to deal with such an event in recent times but it is a question that has to be addressed all the same. Across Suffolk there are people ready to jump into action – they have planned meticulously and rehearsed regularly to ensure that operations run smoothly should ever they be needed.

By Jo Macdonald

The county may never have had to deal with such an event in recent times but it is a question that has to be addressed all the same. Across Suffolk there are people ready to jump into action – they have planned meticulously and rehearsed regularly to ensure that operations run smoothly should ever they be needed. JO MACDONALD found out more about what would happen if a disaster were to occur on our doorstep.

DISASTERS are thankfully uncommon.

Very rarely is there a need to mobilise emergency services, government, business and organisations as a unified force to tackle an unfurling crisis on a massive scale.

Accidents, natural disasters and deliberate attacks that would command the attention of the country's, if not the world's, media and demand a massive degree of action are reassuringly infrequent.

But they do happen.

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They may never happen in Suffolk but that does little to negate the need to be prepared.

After all, what if…?

It is a question that has to be addressed, to ensure that effective procedures are put in place the moment an issue breaks or a distress call is made.

So far it remains a hypothetical dilemma but still, it is one that could so easily become a real issue. To sit back in blissful ignorance of how to deal with such a crisis would be dangerous.

As such there are plans and measures in place to implement should the need arise.

Suffolk County Council's Emergency Planning Department is always ready, waiting like a well-oiled machine, prepared to kick into action.

"Fortunately it's not something we will have to do very often or ever, I hope," explained Jeff Stacey, county emergency plans officer, of the careful planning of procedures ready to be put in place should a disaster occur.

"But it's there as an insurance policy. It's about being prepared if something does happen."

Emergency planning has been a very real issue since 1948 and was initially instigated to deal with wartime responses.

In an era of relative peace, however, today those systems have changed to address all kinds of emergencies.

Mr Stacey said: "The development of emergency planning followed a civil defence act in 1948 which was about a wartime response should we be subject to a nuclear attack. How would we recover from that?

"Over the years that became less likely and the plan was changed to deal with different emergencies. It was a case of focusing on how to respond to peacetime disasters.

"In the 70s and 80s there were a series of disasters like that, including Lockerbie, the sinking of the Marchioness and the Kings Cross fire.

"Fortunately, it's still very rare to have major incidents like that."

The full emergency plan machine is rarely needed but there are elements of it that are regularly called upon, however.

Monitoring of events like the recent and devastating Center Parcs fire, evacuation of sites due to gas or chemical leaks and even last year's foot and mouth disease outbreak all called upon a degree of emergency planning.

"A number of the procedures that would be used in a major disaster get used in part when there are less major incidents," Mr Stacey confirmed.

"Our side of things is not so much what the emergency services do, although we work quite closely with them. We support them by dealing with what happens beyond their role. For example, the requirement to evacuate, like at CenterParcs.

"In that case people went to their cars and went home. If they had to be evacuated and had not been able to go to their cars, what would police have done with these people? They would have looked to us to support them.

"We have arrangements for caring for these people."

"We are not called upon for situations like that frequently," he continued. "In the last few months there have probably only been a couple of times, at gas leaks in Bury St Edmunds.

"There have also been a few situations that we've monitored in case they escalate.

"We were looking at the CenterParcs fire and had our systems up and running to monitor the situation. And our liaison and links were in place.

"The district council sent along an environmental health office to advise. A health and safety officer was also there to help as well as a building control officer to provide advice on the damaged structure.

"There are specialist areas in which we can bring support."

Still it remains that the full-scale operation be ready, should Suffolk to find itself facing a disaster of massive proportions.

Exercises among the various groups, agencies, organisations and businesses most likely to be involved in such a situation are a frequent occurrence.

There is a need to rehearse as well as possible so the emergency plan will be as effective as it can be should it be called upon.

At a time of disaster there needs to be co-ordination and ability to work together.

Mr Stacey explained: "We practice in exercises and do quite a lot of that in different ways.

"We can't do a full exercise, however. I think people would start complaining if we set fire to houses or pulled a tanker along the coastline.

"What we do is look to specific areas, exercises and training with people."

He continued: "Some things we look at are evacuations because of fire, flooding or terrorist activity.

"We also look at specific issues and potential problems and what we need to put in place for them.

"We work with chemical industries, Sizewell, military bases and utilities. There is a potential for disaster to occur related to their areas and we need to know how to respond."

No matter how much practise and planning is undertaken, however, there are always lessons to learn should the unthinkable happen.

Unfortunately these are often learned by looking at the places tragically struck by disaster and studying how their emergency plans work.

"We closely study when there are disasters in other parts of the country and in other countries so should something similar happen here, we can see how they respond and learn lessons to help us," Mr Stacey explained.

"One of the most recent incidents was the explosion in at the chemical factory in Toulouse, in France, last year. We had to look at what happened there."

There is a support network throughout the county and across Britain to help department's like Mr Stacey's.

Each district and borough council has its own emergency planning officer and there are a number of regional groups as well as the National Emergency Planning Society. Together they work to address specific issues.

And Mr Stacey and his two colleagues in the county council department will not be in charge should disaster strike in Suffolk.

"If there was a major disaster the council's chief executive would bring together the management team to see what needs to be done to help, what they have got and the people affected," he said. "They go to the various departments and mobilise resources.

"A lot of what we do is preparing systems and making sure the chief executive and that management team are well informed when it comes to making those decisions.

"We provide the communication links and liaison with different agencies."

In the event of a disaster the scene would become a hive of activity involving many different organisations, agencies and services.

Command centres would be set up, including a Gold Command Centre from where the senior officers of all the partners involved in the operation would work.

To ensure the most effective handling of all those taking part, there needs to be co-ordination and clear communication, a task the emergency plan should be able to address in advance.

"We've very much an insurance policy," Mr Stacey stressed again, "looking at what would happen and how organisations would co-ordinate.

"There would be the need for the co-ordination of a lot of different agencies.

"For example, if there was on oil spill on the River Stour, on the Suffolk/Essex border, it would be the responsibility of 40 different organisations to work together in order to respond effectively.

"It's quite a task to come up with a plan and system that will enable them to work."

How Suffolk would cope in the event of a major disaster still remains a mystery.

Until faced with tragedy, drama and the undoubted need for immediate, co-ordinated and effective action Mr Stacey and the people he works with can only work on hypothetical situations.

But the county has put its faith in them and fingers are crossed it never happens but if it does, rest assured we will be in safe hands.