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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 September, 2004, 13:17 GMT 14:17 UK
Is the North East prepared?
Exercise Magpie
A large-scale emergency exercise took place in Newcastle
The North East has been described by the Home Office as ahead of the game when it comes to preparing for a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear incident.

Earlier this year a simulated terrorist attack was staged in Newcastle city centre, the first large-scale field exercise outside London focusing on the health service.

The area covered by the North East stretches from the Scottish Border in the North, to Cumbria in the West and North Yorkshire in the South.

ScotlandNorthern IrelandNorth EastYorks and HumberNorth WestWest MidlandsEast MidlandsWalesEastSouth EastSouth WestLondon
It is home to 2.5m people, has two international airports and long-established industrial conurbations around the main river estuaries.

The Prime Minister's constituency is also situated in the area.

Important lessons

In April Newcastle played host to Exercise Magpie, organised by the Health Protection Agency.

Hundreds of doctors, nurses, ambulance staff, GPs, firefighters and police officers dealt with a simulated sarin attack on a crowded city centre theatre.

Two of the city's hospitals, and two GP surgeries were also involved in the day-long operation.

Decontamination areas were set up to deal with the casualties, which included 14 'deaths'.

"Nobody has been interested in emergency planning for years, it is only now people have started to take notice."
Val Bowman, Chief Emergency Planning Officer, Tyne and Wear
Professor Pat Troop, Health Protection Agency Chief Executive said: "We were very pleased with the way in which the health service responded to the simulated sarin attack, but we have also learned important lessons about how to improve the health response to emergencies."

A number of lessons and recommendations emerged from the exercise.

It was found that health staff could not work in an area that had been directly contaminated, and casualties needed to be able to remove or discard contaminated clothing more quickly.

The need to make clear the roles and responsibilities within the health service and other agencies was also highlighted.

These issues are currently being addressed by the Health Protection Agency.

If called upon to deal with a real incident, the North East Ambulance service, covering Northumberland, Tyne and Wear and Durham, has eight mobile decontamination units, two of which are held specifically in Newcastle, and 200 personal protective equipment (PPE) suits.

Exercise Magpie
'Victims' were decontaminated during Exercise Magpie
The service covers an area of 3,000 square miles, and serves a population of 2.1m.

The Tees, East and North Yorkshire Ambulance Service has one decontamination unit, and between 20 and 30 decontamination suits, for Teesside and Cleveland.

Each of the four fire brigades in the North East has one incident response unit.

Fire appliances, which hold six personnel, carry two gas tight suits.

The area is covered by four emergency planning units - Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, Durham and Darlington, and Cleveland.

They are funded by the local authorities, and their job is to prepare for incidents which range from extreme weather conditions to chemical spillages.

Exercise Magpie attracted a lot of public attention, but the units have been running their own, lower-profile training exercise for a long time.

Val Bowman, Chief Emergency Officer for Tyne and Wear said: "Nobody has been interested in emergency planning for years, it is only now people have started to take notice."

Plans are in place to deal with day-to-day emergencies, but these new threats have brought in a different dimension
Ian Clough, Chief Emergency Planning Officer, Northumberland
"The North East has always been very proactive in its emergency planning.

"Every year we run the inter-agency Norland exercises which test response to a major incident."

This programme has achieved local and national recognition, and the theme in 2004 is 'structural collapse'.

Tyne and Wear Emergency Planning Unit also operates a clergy and multi-faith plan, which can call upon the clergy to help in the aftermath of any incident.

The training and planning exercises are well-integrated, and involve all the emergency services, but are not exclusively focused on terrorism.

'A different league'

Ms Bowman said: "There is no specific intelligence that anywhere in the North East is at risk.

"However, we not complacent, far from it. We are very mindful of the risk to the UK in general.

"We got together at a very early stage to start discussing a joint approach to this, and have made considerable progress.

"The Home Office has commended us on our approach, and requested to visit one of our meetings."

The task of drawing up a regional chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear plan is being co-ordinated by Ian Clough, Chief Emergency Planner for Northumberland, who has been seconded to the Government Office North East for this purpose.

He told BBC News Online: "Plans are in place to deal with day-to-day emergencies, but these new threats have brought in a different dimension."

"I am sitting in an office surrounded by people looking at things like planning permission on a village green, and I am working on the provision of temporary morgues and decontamination suits.

"It is in a different league."

This article is intended as an overview for the North East region. For further information visit the related internet links on the right hand side of the page.

Mock terror attack under review
15 Jun 04  |  Tyne/Wear
In pictures: Tyneside terror practice
28 Apr 04  |  Photo Gallery
City is tested in terror exercise
28 Apr 04  |  Tyne/Wear

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