Sunday 18 August 2019

How would we cope with a terrorist attack?

Alert: Police in Saint-Denis, near Paris. Reuters.
Alert: Police in Saint-Denis, near Paris. Reuters.

Graham Clifford

Sirens blazed through Parisian streets, armed troops, some wearing balaclavas and carrying heavy ­weaponry, stalked alleyways and pointed their guns at upstairs windows. Fire engines waited on standby, outside the Bataclan theatre ambulances lined up one after the other.

The horror of the Friday 13th attacks on Paris revealed ­intelligence services had failed to identify this threat - made all the more shocking by the number of terrorists involved and the range and diversity of venues targeted. But what if a similar ­terrorist attack was to visit another European capital - Dublin?

Though the Taoiseach said this week that Ireland's security is at a normal response level, and there is no information that any attack is either planned for Ireland or being planned here, the nature of terrorist attacks by Islamic State are that their preparation can go undetected.

The State's National Security Committee, a secretive inter-­departmental group responsible for ensuring that the Taoiseach is informed of high-level national security, intelligence and defence issues, met last weekend to consider the implications of the Paris attacks on Ireland and found that the threat level should remain unchanged and the possibility was still low.

If an attack, or attempted attack, were to take place in Ireland, a National Emergency plan would be enacted across the country. The Government Task Force on Emergency Planning was formed following the 9/11 attacks in New York.

The Garda Special Branch and the Army's Intelligence and ­Ordnance sections, which are the lead security elements in ­preparation for any such attack, would try to contain the ­situation, backed up by regular gardaí and potentially army ­personnel. ­Realistically though, security analysts believe assistance from ­outside, most likely British anti-terrorism personnel, may be required to assist if an attack was severe.

The lessons learned from the conflict in Northern Ireland should serve the Irish Army well - especially when it comes to dealing with IEDs (improvised explosive devices).

Last year the Garda Counter Terrorism International (CTI) unit was established in response to the growing threat from Islamic terrorism. It is a section within the Special Detective Unit (SDU) of the gardaí based at Harcourt Square in Dublin and it's their job to identify terrorist threats and plots before they happen.

The CTI has its own specialist surveillance unit and officers work closely with international security agencies on both sides of the Atlantic.

If there was an attack and the terrorist went on the run, the closure of the border with Northern Ireland could be carried out quickly.

There are major concerns regarding the treatment of civilians seriously injured in any potential terrorist attack. Would our hospitals, already struggling to deal with patient numbers, be able to assist rapidly and effectively and, if so, what impact would this have on regular patients with serious conditions? Could we summon enough ambulances to rush to a major event with high levels of casualties?

In the event of an attack, first responders, such as the ­ambulance and fire service, would assess the scene and once a major emergency has been declared would appoint an ­ambulance-loading location for casualties. Then the emergency services would assess patients and allocate triage cards, based on a ­traffic-light system, to indicate how serious their injuries were. Hospitals dealing with casualties would operate on a different ­system during a mass-casualty incident, with every hospital ­having its own major incident plan to implement.

Were such an attack to take place in Dublin, routes out of the city would be policed, flights could be grounded at Dublin Airport, and rail and port entry stopped. In theory, the country is prepared then for such an attack - but in practice the process would be hugely difficult to implement.

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