Wednesday, 7 March 2007
National Emergency Plan.
I am pleased to inform the Deputy that significant progress has been made in the establishment of a national emergency co-ordination centre. The centre is located in Agriculture House, Kildare Street. The building work is now complete and the centre will be furnished and ready to open within the next two to three weeks. The technical and communications needs of the centre are being addressed and this aspect of the work should also be finalised in the very near future.
The primary purpose of the centre will be to provide a dedicated, multi-functional facility in which Ministers and-or senior officials may convene to co-ordinate the response in the event of a major emergency.
As I understand it, this is a communications centre in dealing with major emergencies, but it is not built as a bunker or shelter designed to withstand an actual physical attack. When was the decision made to establish such a centre and why was this particular location chosen?
The Deputy is right in saying it is not a bunker. There are no physical protection measures in place such as one might see in an underground bunker. The decision was made by the Government following a recommendation made in the environmental resources management consultancy report. To the best of my knowledge, the group concerned reported to the Government in 2003. In 2005 the Government approved the establishment of a national emergency co-ordination centre and asked the interdepartmental working group on emergency planning to consider the matter, including its location. The reason this location was chosen was that among the criteria was that the centre would have to be secure, easily accessible and have good communications facilities. We were very fortunate to secure a part of Agriculture House, Kildare Street, close to the centre of Government, just up the road from Leinster House. We are in the process of installing robust communications systems. There will also be facilities for an incident room, meeting rooms and other essential services.
Will the centre be permanently manned or will it operate on an on-call basis? If so, is there an agreed timeframe for getting the group together in order that it would be able to react to an incident? There was a minor issue some months ago — a burst water main on the N11 — which caused pandemonium for several hours. Will the Minister say whether his group learned anything from that incident, because there was a similar occurrence on the northern side of the M50 a couple of years ago, following an accident when traffic on the entire motorway came to a standstill for a few hours?
The centre will be run by the Office of Emergency Planning located within the Department of Defence. My understanding is that a few people will be located there on a permanent basis. In the event of an emergency we will immediately contact all those involved in the emergency task force and get them into position as quickly as possible in order that they may respond. That is how it will work. There will also be other functions. There will be facilities for video conferencing, if some individuals are not available etc. Technologically, the centre will be advanced.
My apologies to the Deputy. We discussed the matter at the emergency task force meeting. I hope to have another meeting of the task force shortly at which we shall receive a specific report on the incident.
My reason for raising the issue is that the public wants to be assured that there is such a centre and that there will be effective communications in the event of a national emergency. Trucks breaking down on our main roads constitutes an emergency, but thank God — touch wood — there has not been a major terrorist attack in this city for a long time, or a major disaster at sea or in the air. Will there be information programmes to ensure the public will be fully aware of the centre and that it is operational? It might be an idea to issue an invitation to all Members of the Oireachtas and even perhaps county managers to tour the centre when it is fully operational. Opposition Members may laugh, but, frankly, it would be good for public confidence if Members of the Oireachtas were to visit the centre and be shown the full mechanics of how it would operate.
I agree with my colleague, Deputy Mulcahy, that there is a need to increase public awareness of the existence of the co-ordination centre and the emergency planning task force. This country is as ready as it can be to deal with any emergency that may occur, including a nuclear accident or terrorist attack. The Department intends to launch a public information campaign involving television advertisements, etc, aimed at every house in the country, to explain in ordinary layman's language how emergency planning works in this country. It has completed a tender process and contracted a company to undertake the campaign, which is ready to roll. Deputy Timmins will be delighted to hear that material containing my photograph will not be sent to every house in the country as part of the emergency planning campaign.
An essential aspect of the campaign will involve informing the public about the location, existence and function of the national co-ordination centre. I am interested in Deputy Mulcahy's suggestion that Members of the Oireachtas should be invited to the centre to see it for themselves. I will talk to the appropriate people about that suggestion, which is a good one.
If the centre were to be relocated in Limerick, the Minister's photograph could be included in the awareness material. How often does the emergency planning task force meet? Does it meet on a regular basis, even though the national emergency co-ordination centre is not yet up and running? Does it have a permanent staff? Does the Minister propose to establish a hotline to enable contact to be made by the public? While I do not expect people to be able to telephone the centre to say that Martians have arrived, the work of the centre should involve a two-way process.
The task force meets every five weeks, on average. I envisage that a hotline, staffed by people using a bank of telephone facilities, will be made available to the public in the event of an emergency.