Emergency services prepare for the worst

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 March, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 March, 2003, 12:00am

Analysis of a full-scale exercise imitating a gas attack last year suggests senior leaders should have been involved

It was a normal day at a Kowloon hospital, until 50 people arrived with similar symptoms. Many were having difficulty breathing, were vomiting, involuntarily defecating and suffering convulsions. Some who were in a critical condition collapsed and passed out.

Doctors and nurses tended to those they could and moved the rest to other hospitals as reports of more victims - up to 200 - suffering similar symptoms came in.

Watching scenes of people collapsing at a sporting event in the New Territories, Security Bureau officials were struck by the similarity to images from the sarin attack in a Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult in 1995, which killed 12 people and hospitalised more than 5,000. The Hong Kong sarin contingency plan kicked in, and officials started treating it as a terrorist attack.

Trained Fire Services personnel in hi-tech protective suits were called in to contain and clean up the sarin at the sporting stadium involved, and medical specialists were sent to hand out drugs for treating exposure to the nerve gas.

This was the script used by 20 government departments and bureaus to stage a mock terrorist attack, the largest of its kind in Hong Kong, last April.

It was an exercise that is still being analysed by top security and police counter-terrorism experts who have long feared that Hong Kong may not be prepared.

During the three-day exercise, the government staged a separate attack involving the pathogen anthrax, without giving details.

One of the criticisms levelled at the exercise was that it involved mainly frontline emergency personnel but excluded top officials and policy makers. 'I think it might be useful to try an exercise involving top level people because, ultimately, it's about crisis management and leadership playing the key role,' said a senior government official who had seen the analysis.

'No government or city can tell you they are 100 per cent prepared. Is Hong Kong prepared? It really depends on the magnitude and nature of the attack,' he said.

Like most major medical authorities around the world, the Department of Health has stockpiled smallpox vaccines, antibiotics for anthrax treatment and sarin antidotes, but for security reasons, it would not say in what quantities.

The Security Bureau said a three-tier emergency response system was in place. At the top tier, senior officials would move into pre-planned command positions. 'I don't think there is an issue here. Top people have all been briefed and trained for such emergencies,' a bureau spokeswoman said.

Gunnar Kuepper, chief of operations for Los Angeles-based Emergency and Disaster Management, said it was very difficult for outsiders to gain accurate information about security and counter-terrorism measures around the world after the September 11 terrorist attacks. He suspected this was the case in Hong Kong as well.

But he said the public needed to be educated to play a more active role in the event of an emergency.

'I was a bit disappointed about the separation between the public and emergency services [in Hong Kong],' he said. 'The public are not just victims, but a body of resources. If you want to build a terrorism-resistant community, then government, businesses and the community must work together.'