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Friday, 14 February, 2003, 17:22 GMT
Is Britain ready for terrorist attack?
Ruins of the World Trade Center
New York's emergency services were overwhelmed
Britons should be on full alert in readiness for an attack by al-Qaeda, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has said. BBC News Online looks at what would happen to Britain's infrastructure in the event of a cataclysmic attack.

Fire services

A major cloud of uncertainty hanging over emergency planning is the current firefighters' dispute.

Firefighters are showing no signs of backing down in their pay dispute, with further strikes planned.

If you have a gas attack it's a bit like having a fire, you just get the people out

London Underground spokeswoman

It is widely assumed that the Fire Brigades Union would respond in the event of a major incident, but there would inevitably be a slower than usual response if it came during a strike.

Firefighters regularly carry out emergency planning drills, especially in London, but the 11 September attacks on America illustrate how impossible it is to tackle a completely unpredictable event.

Details of the emergency plans are deliberately kept secret to prevent terrorists trying to sabotage them.

Ambulance service

The capital is assumed to be a prime target for terrorists, and London's ambulance service is thought to be able to cope with 500 casualties at a time but it would struggle with the numbers seen at the World Trade Center.

It has recent experience of tackling major emergencies - although nothing comparable in terms of the deaths and injuries involved - with the IRA bombs at the Baltic Exchange in 1992 and Canary Wharf in 1996.

One of the major logistical problems would be simply getting patients to hospitals quickly.

Ambulances would struggle to ferry the wounded through London's crowded streets and there are only a limited number of air ambulances.

NHS

Emergency planning within the National Health Service got a major overhaul after 11 September 2001.

There are now 30 million smallpox vaccines available and antibiotics for use in anthrax and plague attacks have been stockpiled.

Sixteen separate guidelines have been issued to NHS workers and there have also been mock attack drills.

But a report by the National Audit Office in November said the NHS would struggle to cope in the event of a major attack.

It said many hospital and ambulance trusts in England did not have adequate plans to deal with a biological, chemical, radiological or nuclear attack.

London Underground

Tube bosses are proud of their emergency planning procedures, which they have been honing for 30 years.

A London Underground spokeswoman told BBC News Online: "We have regular drills and always have an annual live emergency with actors and actresses playing key parts in an incident.

"We also have table top exercises in which managers and fire service chiefs discuss various scenarios."

She said they had taken on board lessons learned in the 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo underground, in which 12 people died.

"If you have a gas attack it's a bit like having a fire, you just get the people out. We evacuate stations for various reasons on a daily basis, so we are very well practised in doing that," said the spokeswoman.

Airports

Security at all of Britain's 74 international and regional airports was stepped up after 11 September 2001.

Passengers are no longer allowed to embark with sharp objects - razors or nail scissors, for example - in their hand luggage and all such items are now confiscated.

A spokeswoman for BAA, which runs seven of Britain's biggest airports including Heathrow and Gatwick, said they conducted regular live drills as well as tabletop exercises and liaised with fire services and police constantly.

I'm sure every step is taken to ensure pilots are not carrying anyone they shouldn't be but it's never going to be fireproof

John Haffenden
Shoreham airport manager

Security has also been stepped up at Britain's smaller airstrips and people can no longer turn up and ask to fly in a light aircraft.

But John Haffenden, manager of Shoreham Airport in West Sussex, said: "I'm sure every step is taken to ensure pilots are not carrying anyone they shouldn't be but it's never going to be fireproof."


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18 Nov 02 | England
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