Ferry disaster planning

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A serious fire on a cross-Channel ferry: remote though the risk might seem, emergency teams need to plan for the worst

A group of emergency planning professionals from across the Southeast met early at Dover docks on March 19 to board the new super ferry P&O Spirit of Britain.  The group included myself. 

The meeting was convened to consider the lessons from an earlier target exercise, planned by the Kent Resilience Forum – which involved the county’s Police, Fire and Rescue and other emergency services – to test their emergency preparedness at this critical UK gateway. 

The scenario involved a major mid-Channel incident on a ferry heading for Dover.  To make the exercise as realistic as possible, P&O Ferries had provided its flagship vessel, the Spirit of Britain, and the Port of Dover allowed use of part of the docks. 

The emergency services were asked to respond to the mock incident by activating their command and control facilities on land, dispatching assets to sea by helicopter and by establishing a survivor reception centre at Dover. The latter  handled the evacuation of all those once the ferry returned to port.   

At the March meeting, professionals who had not been involved in the exercise were briefed on its planning and implementation, followed by a discussion of the lessons identified. Travelling on the ferry, capable of carrying 2,000 passengers and 1,000 cars, they heard from the master and were reassured about the complex onboard systems, which enabled the ship to meet strict “return to port” regulations even after damage and with reduced facilities. My own conclusions: it was a well organised event and a valuable one for those involved in emergency planning and crisis management.

Anthony Kimber is an experienced risk consultant and chairman of the voluntary Rye Emergency Action Community Team (REACT)