I thank the committee for its invitation to attend the meeting. The National Emergency Co-ordination Group, NECG, is associated with our Department in its role as a lead Department for a number of emergency scenarios. While our Department has led the development of many aspects of emergency management and is perhaps most associated with the NECG because of storms Ophelia and Emma. However, the group is part of a generic emergency management system, which is used by any one of eight lead Departments, depending on the emergency scenario, and is not merely associated with weather events.
The Department’s functions in emergency management are delegated to the national directorate for fire and emergency management, NDFEM, in our Department, of which I am the national director. I am joined by colleagues Keith Leonard, director of emergency management, and Maria Smith, assistant principal in the national directorate.
The NDFEM was established in 2009 as part of a consolidation exercise and operates with its own management board structure within the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. Its mandate is to develop consistent, effective, quality local authority fire services to protect communities from fire. Its roles include developing national policies and national standards, and supporting and overseeing their implementation at local level.
Based on international good practice in the field of safety and emergency management, the national directorate uses a systemic risk management approach in managing fire risk and other emergency scenarios in Ireland.
Ten years on from its inception, the management board of the NDFEM has made significant progress in aligning national and local arrangements around common fire safety objectives. The national directorate supports the fire authorities through setting general policy, providing a central training programme, issuing guidance on operational and other related matters and providing capital funding for priority infrastructural projects.
National policy on fire services is set out in Keeping Communities Safe published by my Department's national directorate in 2013. This policy document sets out the overall approach, the methods and the techniques to achieve the objective of keeping communities safe from fire and sets out national norms, standards and targets against which local authorities can benchmark their services.
Over the course of 2014 and 2015, the national directorate’s management board commissioned an external validation group, EVG, to visit each of the 27 local authority fire services. In April 2016, the management board published the first EVG report entitled, Local Delivery - National Consistency, arising from this work. The report concluded, inter alia, that local authorities benchmarked their fire services against the national standards and national norms, and a strong degree of consistency, linked to area risk categorisation process in fire service provision, and all local authorities are using, or are working towards, national norms as minimum standards.
Practically all fire deaths in Ireland occur in the home and there has been a strong focus on community fire safety initiatives over the past decade, primarily the fitting of smoke alarms in dwellings. There has been a consistent decline in fire fatality rates in Ireland over the past decade. We are at a point where, at a three-year average 5.3 fatalities per million of population, we are in the league of fire safe countries. This is less than half the death rate ten years ago.
Additionally, the directorate has played a key role in developing arrangements for emergency management at both local and national levels. The directorate has led the national level response across government services as lead Department for severe weather to events such as Storm Ophelia and Storm Emma. My presentation will focus on the work undertaken by the NDFEM in our role as chair of the NECG in recent severe weather events.
The group is not a standing committee. It is activated when the judgement of the lead Department suggests that it is both necessary and beneficial to activate defined national co-ordination procedures for situations which are, or may develop, into national emergencies.
It is a principle of emergency management in Ireland that response occurs and is led at the level closest to where the emergency occurs. For instance, we do not try to manage events in west Cork from Dublin, the people in west Cork will respond and do what they need. Hundreds of minor emergencies are dealt with every day by our principal emergency services. Not all emergencies require a full NECG to be activated. Last summer for instance, we convened a cross-departmental group to manage the drought and water supply, rather than convening a full NECG.
A national emergency co-ordination group may be convened where a potential or actual national emergency situation is perceived to exist by the relevant lead Department. Emergency scenarios for which the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government is the lead Department and may activate a group are severe weather events, flooding, major fires, water supply or water contamination, hazardous materials incidents, landslides, and building collapse or accidental explosions.
With the exception of the tsunami and nuclear accident at Fukushima, Japan, in 2011, when nuclear safety was part of the Department’s brief, all of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government’s experiences as a lead Department convening a NECG relate to severe weather and flooding scenarios. We work closely with our colleagues in Met Éireann, who are also part of the Department of Housing Planning and Local Government. Met Éireann issue weather-related advisories, alerts and warnings under a well-established traffic light and scaled system for severe weather events. In addition, Met Éireann is developing a national fluvial flood forecast and warning system in conjunction with the OPW.
In the national directorate we work closely with Met Éireann in assessing potential impacts of forecasted weather conditions, and liaise with them practically on a daily basis. Where we judge the situation warrants, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government will convene and chair the NECG to undertake the necessary additional co-ordination of services at national level. All Departments and a range of specialist agencies are required to attend a group when it is convened by a lead Department.
As lead Department, the chair will decide the mode of national emergency co-ordination centre, NECC, operation appropriate to the circumstances. This may range from one co-ordination group meeting per day to continuous, or 18-hour, operation within the centre or on a continuum between these.
The Department uses the NECC facility in Agriculture House on Kildare Street when it has called an NECG. This facility was put in place at the request of the Department in the mid-2000s and has proven invaluable as a hub for national co-ordination and communications with the public.
The national directorate team uses a simple but effective national incident management system to manage all emergencies. This involves four boards. The recognised current situation describes whether the emergency relates to snow, weather, fire or transport accident, for instance. Out of that we extract the key issues for our level of co-ordination. We then establish the objective or objectives and priorities against which we judge all our actions. It is a very simple generic system which is in use throughout the country by all local authorities, the HSE, An Garda Síochána and everyone. It is a simple system that has been bedded in over the last decade.
The NECG chair designates, and revises as necessary, our staff roles while in operation. We review information, decide actions and assign tasks. Depending on the circumstances, the national directorate team may be supported by members of the Department’s management board and other Department staff as appropriate.
The NECG is the national hub for co-ordination of all activity relating to an emergency situation. At the initial group meeting, the chair will make appropriate introductory comments, and at this stage we have established working relationships among many of the participants around the table, which helps set the tone for the working of the group.
The co-ordination activity at national level is referred to as horizontal co-ordination, that is, we are co-ordinating equals among all 15 Departments and all the agencies. This happens at the National Emergency Co-ordination Centre. Several meetings may be held a day or it may be a single meeting, depending on the situation.
We prepare an agenda for distribution which reflects the key issues. The chair’s job is to structure the meeting and ensure that things are focused on the key issues and ensure that each is dealt with adequately and efficiently as time is usually a pressure.
It is important to bear in mind that the NECG is a forum for sharing information which enables organisations to make informed and appropriate decisions about their individual areas of responsibility.
The existence of a national emergency co-ordination group does not take decision-making or other functions from any statutory body, Minister, Department, or agency. Attendees are expected to share relevant information, to contribute meaningfully to discussion of issues and to ensure that decisions for their sector are made in a timely fashion taking account of the information shared at the group.
Depending on the nature, extent and response required, the chair may designate subgroups, and subgroup chairs, to deal with specific issues or aspects of its work that have arisen, or are anticipated, in the event of the emergency.
In my role as chairman I normally assign a member of our staff to work with the group to ensure issues are dealt with quickly and effectively. Some subgroups dealing with generic functions, such as public safety messaging and preparing communication messages, may be standing for the duration of a national emergency co-ordination group. Others come and go on a day-by-day basis as needed.
Part of the role of the lead Department is to liaise with and support those who work on the front line to manage the emergency. The task of linking with local services is referred to as vertical co-ordination. There are two levels of co-ordination. One is at national level, which is horizontal, and the vertical is where we link with people managing the emergency at local level.
A framework for major emergency management was adopted by the Government in 2006 and introduced through a two-year major emergency development programme. It underpins the co-ordination of local response efforts in an emergency. The national steering group for major emergency management is an interdepartmental body, which was also formed in 2006. It is chaired and supported by the national directorate and has an ongoing programme for further development of emergency management capacity at local and regional level. The national steering group is overseeing the final stages of the introduction of a framework for mass fatality planning. This a grim subject but we felt there was a need to do some work on it. The national steering group has developed and published an extensive range of guidance on different aspects of emergency management.
As we have seen from flooding in Donegal to snow in Wexford, the relevant local authorities lead the local response and co-ordinate the activities of the principal response agencies, be they the Garda Síochána or the HSE. Significant efforts have gone into developing a standard approach to this function and each event is reviewed with a view to learning. An initial experience of a local authority in using social media to provide information for the public on a developing emergency has become the norm after review meetings. For example, a presentation may be made on how something worked in Cork along with the issues that arose. This is how much of the development has happened over the past decade.
Provision of timely and appropriate public safety warnings and information for the public is one of the key roles of a national emergency co-ordination group. The chair of the group generally leads a Department's public information and communications work associated with the emergency, and the general approach is, if possible, to have a single voice for the duration of the emergency.
A further perceived strength of the Department's practice is that it is the crisis management process which is dominant. Communications is positioned as an important ancillary support function but not the central player of the National Emergency Co-ordination Group. While recognising the centrality of the group's public information mandate, with its focus on crisis management and general reliance on expert-led and delivered communications, the Department’s experience is that the National Emergency Co-ordination Group has established credibility with the media and the public as the definitive source of warnings, advice and information. Widely accepted public communication is an indication of successful delivery of the national emergency co-ordination group's remit. Managing to preserve this positive perception of the group is a constant challenge. Overuse of the group or a misjudgment on an issue could damage its public credibility.
Communicating warnings and associated protective actions to the public is a significant function of the National Emergency Co-ordination Group. One of the values of establishing a national emergency co-ordination group during a crisis lies in its collective consideration of all the issues, while fine-tuning safety advice for the public, depending on the situation.
Delivery of public safety messages is achieved through a combination of traditional news media and social media. Safety messaging is a reasonably well developed function and, for example, relevant organisations begin disseminating selected messages in advance of weather emergencies. Experience suggests that communities and individuals will take the necessary protective action when provided with timely, credible and accurate safety information.
Since we first used the National Emergency Co-ordination Group approach for the major flooding in November 2009, the national directorate has reviewed the response to every emergency event where a national emergency co-ordination group has been activated. This has enabled a continuous cycle of reflection, learning and improvement in our co-ordination of emergency response. We have prepared a review report on the extraordinary series of weather events that affected Ireland in 2017 and 2018, including ex-Hurricane Ophelia and Storm Emma, which was a snowstorm, three flooding events and the drought and associated water shortages and wildland fires last summer. Our overall conclusion, based on the response across the range of events, is that our emergency management system at national level, when linked with a local response that successfully engages communities and provides adequate warnings and information for the public, is a comprehensive form of integrated emergency management in keeping with good international practice. However, part of the purpose of the review is to identify what we can improve. We have implemented recommendations within the national directorate's remit and we are working with the local government sector and the national steering group on major emergency management to implement recommendations within their respective remits. The Government's task force on emergency management is considering our recommendations, which have national co-ordination and interdepartmental implications.
I hope I have been able to explain the National Emergency Co-ordination Group and I look forward to hearing the views of committee members. I hope I can answer the questions they may have on this area of work.