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As the world verges on panic, it is up to councils to keep everything running if the worst should happen, says Jon ...
As the world verges on panic, it is up to councils to keep everything running if the worst should happen, says Jon Hanlon

The increased threat of terrorism in recent weeks means councils need to look again at their plans for reacting to any kind of terror attack, be it biological or conventional.

Emergency planning presents so many unknown variables it is hard to predict a response, but consultation is under way to look at how councils would cope with a major incident.

Disasters do not pay any attention to boundaries and councils would be expected to work seamlessly with each other, the fire brigade, the police, central government and the military.

In the event of a terrorist attack, a multi-agency task force would be set up at the nearest police headquarters where the council chief executive and head of emergency planning would co-ordinate the council's response.

If more than one council is involved, Cabinet Office guidance demands 'a swift decision' as to who leads the local government response.

The guidance says strategic meetings could include 'decontamination strategy, media issues and public information strategy, response to central and local government political figures and VIPs, and the strategy for re-occupation and recovery'.

Councils can expect requests for the use of buildings, help with transport, distribution of medicine, provision of equipment and a whole range of other services, including social work.

Government guidance says: 'Local authority emergency plans should clearly identify the nature and extent of existing links to partners, in particular relationships with health authorities and NHS trusts.'

Hertfordshire CC head of emergency planning David Moses says effective links between councils and other agencies are vital to ensure the smooth running of any emergency operation.

The county council discovered its investment in emergency planning was invaluable when faced with the aftermath of rail crashes at Watford and Hatfield.

Mr Moses says: 'Councils are much better placed to deal with emergencies. An awful lot of work goes on away from the scene. We worked closely alongside Welwyn Hatfield DC, as well as the police and rail companies.'

Even though the council had no statutory duty to assist following the Hatfield rail disaster it provided a range of resources, from makeshift hospitals to scythes to cut the grass on railway verges.

Social services staff were mobilised to provide counselling, survivors were taken to Hatfield University and transport was provided to take traumatised passengers back to Bradford and Leeds.

Funding is a crucial issue. The Cabinet Office suggests the civil defence grant system be scrapped in favour of extra funding through the revenue support grant.

Mr Moses criticises the specific grant system

for limiting the resources available for emergency planning.

'We were able to cope with the rail crashes because we are well-resourced,' he says, 'but specific grants lead to the view that the only money to be spent on emergency planning is ring-fenced from the government.'

Most people agree there is a need for a review of emergency planning guidelines in the wake of terrorist attacks in the United States and alerts in the UK, including an anthrax scare at the Local Government Association's headquarters.

The most recent legislation on emergency planning is the Civil Defence Act 1948 which seeks to 'deprive hostile attack of its effect', but in a drastically different era, the LGA is at the forefront of ensuring councils are equipped to deal with a crisis.

LGA policy officer Chris Drew says: 'The guidance on chemical or biological emergency planning for councils is related to national security issues. If there is a suspicion of anthrax it will have to be tackled on the ground. This would also attract the attention of the international community.

'We would need to consider whether we were dealing with a chemical agent, a nerve agent or people making use of whatever chemicals are at hand. We have to take account of what we are doing, but the situation remains that the risk of attack is very low indeed.'

There is no doubt councils will be expected to play a major part in any disaster recovery plans.

The government's advice on dealing with biological terror attacks says: 'Councils will have a major role to play following an incident of this type. The scale and nature means large numbers of people are likely to be affected.

'Front-line staff who have been involved in responding to the incident may be deeply affected. Social services staff may need to visit clients in their own homes to offer comfort and reassurance.'

Welsh Local Government Association director Sandy Blair said emergency management is the key to handling crisis situations.

'It's important to redirect resources to handle emergency situations. The consequences of foot-and-mouth were that some services had to be re-directed.'

The Cabinet Office intended to keep its document secret, but emergency planners are aware openness is needed if a state of readiness is to be reached.

The contingency plans reveal the government's reliance on the expertise of councils to deal with situations with local, national and international implications.

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