Tsunami strikes as drill tests disaster response

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Staff reporter

EMERGENCY services and council staff were faced with the scenario that the Ironbridge Gorge has collapsed causing a tidal wave to threaten Bridgnorth in mock exercise.

That catastrophic news greeted those assembled at a mock press conference at the Shirehall in Shrewsbury on September 21.

Of course, the news was made up – the conference was part of an emergency drill involving Shropshire Council, Telford and Wrekin Council, West Midlands Ambulance Service, West Mercia Police, Shropshire Fire and Rescue and the Shrewsbury-based 143 Brigade.

The scene was slightly surreal, with a panel of representatives answering questions on the fictional disaster – complete with reports of action taken, thoughts for those affected and statistics of the impact on agriculture, retail and tourism.

But for those taking part the activity itself was very real – they had been on full alert dealing with unfolding events.

“It was a full exercise of how it would be with a real unravelling scenario,” said emergency planning officer Emma-Jane Ellison.

“It was a case of testing how robust everyone’s arrangements are in those circumstances,” added risk assessment officer Jane Cooper.

Exercise Noah, as the drill was called, was the end result of months of planning for the Shropshire Council officers. Staff had been familiarised with emergency procedures in the weeks leading up to the day.

The emergency services dealt with the crisis from a control room, referred to as “the bunker” in the basement of Shirehall, complete with operators manning a helpline.

Tim Smith, group manager for facilities, said: “Some of the people down there were clearly old hands, but for a few of us this was a new experience.

“As a team it was a really good effort. We’ve learnt a hell of lot.”

Meanwhile, above ground staff also responded as they would in such a crisis.

The day started with a 4.5 metre flood warning, with more rain and major flooding “injected” as the morning went on.

At midday, as everyone was working hard to manage flooding and evacuation along the Severn throughout Shropshire, the Ironbridge Gorge bombshell was dropped.

A mini-tsunami was now said to be heading down the river towards Bridgnorth, sparking panic and looting as the town was prepared for evacuation.

“Since the restructure we were keen to make sure everyone was familiar with their roles and responsibilities within the plan,” said Jane Cooper afterwards.

There were two plans that had to work together, she said – the planned response of emergency services and the plan for continuity of business and services in Shropshire.

“Some people on the teams will have a dual role to play – they have to respond to the emergency but they also have to have their council hat on.

“We had to make sure the roles and terminology of the two plans were consistent.

“We knew when we did the exercise that we were going to find learning points.

“It’s not just an awareness of how to work in a team we were looking for, but also to highlight areas where there might be weaknesses – but on the whole it highlighted that the plans are very, very robust.

“We’re confident after today that if there was such a scenario we would be prepared,” she said.

“But maybe not tomorrow – we’re worn out,” added Ms Ellison.

See full story in the Leader

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