posted on | written by Jim Walsh
Hurricane Ophelia, which struck Ireland on Monday last, brought out and not for the first time, the best in Irish public service.
Public servants from planners, the Met office, frontline responders, the state broadcaster and other national media did the country a great service.
The message ‘stay safe’ and the decision to close down as much of the country as possible undoubtedly got through to the whole country, with the exception of some very silly people who walked the shores and beaches or went sailing or surfing, putting themselves and emergency responders at risk.
We have been lucky in Ireland to have a history of excellent public service going right back to the foundation of the State.
Modern public and civil servants from the late TK Whitaker, widely regarded as creating the blueprint in the late 1950s for country’s future economic success, to our negotiators in the EU in the 1970s, to more recent public servants who drew up and implemented national crisis plans, have all demonstrated the highest level of service in the interests of the country.
Ireland has an extensive range of crisis emergency plans in place coordinated at national and local levels. They include a Major Emergency plan, such as operated for Ophelia, a National Civil Aviation Security Committee, National Emergency plan for Nuclear Accidents, Major Oil Spillages from Ships, Marine Search & Rescue, Severe Weather Emergencies and Exotic Animal Diseases.
The first emergency, where a pre-prepared crisis plan was used, was in 1979 in Bantry, Co Cork for what was then the state’s worst industrial accident. A French cargo vessel, Betelgeuse, exploded while off-loading oil at the Whiddy Island terminal. 51 people died. During the 1980s emergency plans were implemented at local and national levels for a number of fires, rail and air crashes along with the blizzard that hit the country in 1982.
In the early part of this century food safety issues caused emergency plans to be implemented. They included a foot & mouth disease outbreak, Avian Flu, Swine Flu Pandemic and a crisis in the pork industry. There was also the severe weather difficulties in 2009/2010 and the volcanic ash scare of 2010.
Irish major emergency plans are in line with international best practice. While broadly consistent they remain flexible and use the local – national principle. There are national coordinating committees in place, usually led by the relevant Government Department, The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government is designated as the Lead Government Department for coordinating the response to severe weather emergencies, such as Ophelia, at national level.
The Principal Response Agencies (PRA) are Gardai (Police), Health Service Executive (HSE) or Local Authorities. Any of these can declare a major emergency, which is defined as something that happens quickly, causes or threatens death or injury or serious disruption of essential services or damage to property, the environment or infrastructure beyond capabilities of the principle emergency services in the area.
Ophelia brought all of the necessary agencies together and although it resulted sadly in three fatalities, the death toll might have been more had our public service not been as vigilant or as clear in their approach.
There are those who will point to situations where the public service has fallen down on its responsibilities, particularly on regulation oversight and also those who have a stereotypical view of civil servants clocking in from 9 to 5 and contributing very little.
But when it comes to planning and managing emergencies around, severe weather, food contamination, fires, transport accidents and hazardous substance incidents, we can be very grateful for their contribution.