Fertiliser plant exercise puts emergency services to the test

If there were to be a major explosion at NitroFert Fertilisers in County Kilkenny bordering New Ross, would Kilkenny’s emergency be prepared? Would the fire and ambulance services and gardaí be able to respond efficiently and safely?

If there were to be a major explosion at NitroFert Fertilisers in County Kilkenny bordering New Ross, would Kilkenny’s emergency be prepared? Would the fire and ambulance services and gardaí be able to respond efficiently and safely?

This was the situation tested in an exercise involving the gardaí, Health Service Executive (HSE) and ambulance services, and Kilkenny County Council, including the fire services, in County Hall on Wednesday of last week.

The day began with a briefing session on the fertiliser facility, which is located beside the River Barrow and the N25 main road from Waterford to New Ross; and on the difference between ammonium nitrate (which is used to make explosives) and ammonium nitrate fertiliser (which is not in itself explosive).

It was then all systems “go” as the exercise began, with the “news” breaking of a yard fire at the NitroFert site. With control rooms and simulated offices set up in County Hall representing each of the services involved, a marquee tent on the council grounds represented the fertiliser site itself.

With the scenario playing out of a plume of smoke travelling slowly towards New Ross, those taking part in the exercise had to consider – quickly – how to respond to the scene, whether enough resources were available and how to get more, how to get safety information out to the public, how weather conditions would affect the situation, whether road and air traffic diversions needed to be put in place, etc. They even had to deal with added unexpected matters such as a collision between an ambulance and a car carrying a family of French tourists.

The aim of the exercise, according to senior assistant chief fire officer Frank Dunne, was to find any flaws in the decision-making process so that, if an actual situation were to occur, the emergency services would be better equipped to deal with it.

Such an “external emergency plan” is required for the site, which is one of 88 such locations in Ireland that fall under the Seveso regulations for sites that contain various types of hazards.

When the exercise was finished, Mr Dunne said he was pleased with how it had gone.

“Yes, absolutely,” he said. “The only question is efficiency. What we are working on here is improving efficiency, so that instead of finding our feet after 40 minutes it would be 10 minutes.”

Because in an actual emergency, each minute would be vital.