The UK health service proved robust in an exercise to test response to a deliberate release of a chemical substance

The UK health service proved largely robust in an exercise designed to test its response to the deliberate release of a chemical substance. But the exercise, run by the Health Protection Agency, also flagged up areas where the treatment of casualties could be improved.

Elements of the health service’s response to the simulated deliberate release of sarin gas were put to the test during Exercise Magpie, which was held in Newcastle on 28 April 2004. The event involved hundreds of staff and officers from Newcastle’s health and emergency services, and was the first large-scale multi-agency field exercise focusing on the health service to be run outside of London.

The exercise was one of a series commissioned by the Department of Health, and run by the Health Protection Agency, specifically designed to identify ways in which the NHS response to major emergencies can be improved.

Areas that were found to work well included the decontamination of casualties in the field exercise, which took one hour less than predicted to complete. This was attributed to co-operative arrangements between the ambulance and fire and rescue services.

The exercise also showed that when the emergency plans of the wider health community were tested simultaneously, they worked well for the most part. In addition, the health service worked well with partner agencies.

Regarding lessons learned, the field exercise showed the need to:

  • examine the role of those emergency services who are first on the scene at a chemical, biological, radiation or nuclear (CBRN) incident with a view to speeding up treatment of casualties on site;
  • enable casualties to remove contaminated clothing faster, and provide more information and reassurance for casualties waiting to be decontaminated;
  • extend the range of communications methods used within the NHS during a major incident.

Key lessons identified from Desktop Exercise included the need to:

  • clarify roles and responsibilities within the NHS and among partner agencies;
  • issue public health messages through the media faster.

Further lessons identified, along with subsequent actions and recommendations, are detailed in the Executive Summary of Exercise Magpie.

Prof Pat Troop, Chief Executive of the Health Protection Agency, said: “We were very pleased with the way in which the health service responded to the simulated sarin attack in Exercise Magpie, but we have also learnt important lessons about how to improve the health response to emergencies.

“The Agency is extremely grateful to all its partners in Newcastle for their commitment and support. Their contribution to Exercise Magpie was essential for identifying ways in which the treatment of casualties both locally and nationally could be improved.”

Dr Nigel Lightfoot, Director of the Emergency Response Division at the Health Protection Agency, said: “The lessons identified in the Executive Summary have implications for national planning, and for local and regional practice. They, and the mechanisms for implementing lessons identified, will be distributed to all the players, and relevant government departments and agencies. The organisations involved in Exercise Magpie are committed to incorporating these lessons into their plans.”

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