Training in the threat of terror.
Emergency services link up to boost defences against possible chemical attack
Tyneside is today testing its defences against a possible chemical terror attack.
Exercise Magpie is the first of its kind outside of London and shows that the North East is taking the terrorism threat seriously.
Hundreds of doctors, nurses, ambulance staff, GPs, firefighters and police officers from across Newcastle were taking part in today's operation.
An alarm went off at Newcastle Civic Centre just after 9am which signalled a dummy chemical attack.
Two hundred volunteers then acted as if they had been injured or exposed to the chemicals.
Some were being taken to Newcastle General Hospital by ambulance, but to make the scenario as realistic as possible, some of the `casualties' were leaving the site and attending GP clinics.
The exercise was testing the reaction speeds of ambulance staff and doctors and nurses in A&E but will also be looking at how GP surgeries react to a crisis.
Peter Kendal, regional health emergency planning adviser, said: "We want to make sure our hospitals, GPs and ambulance service are ready for a chemical emergency.
"We want to reassure members of the public that we know how to cope with mass casualties.
"We have already carried out a number of emergency exercises, but this is the first one relating to a chemical attack.
"There is no direct terrorist threat to the North East but we want to make sure we would be able to deal with anything that happened.
"We think we are well-prepared for all eventualities but this exercise would not be worth doing if we didn't learn from it."
And he explained that the exercise was also good training in dealing with chemical fires, like the one at the Distillex plant in North Shields two years ago.
To make things as real as possible, ambulance staff and doctors were dressed in special protection suits nearly identical to the outfits that would be worn in a real emergency.
Simon Swallow, deputy emergency planning officer for the North East Ambulance Service, said: "The only thing that will be different about them will the colour.
"We will be in green on Wednesday, but for the real thing they would be yellow.
"The real suits can be worn only for one hour and have to be disposed of after use so we are using training versions.
"But they are exactly the same otherwise and, more importantly, are the same as the ones everywhere else in the country so if we were called to, say, Teesside to help them with an attack, we would be fully equipped."
Areas of Newcastle General Hospital's accident and emergency department will be zoned off according to contamination risks.
A decontamination tent will be in use for people who have been exposed to the chemicals.
The water from their showers will then be collected as it would be in a real attack, ready to be analysed by the Environment Agency.
There will be no disruption to emergency services, who will still be reacting to 999 calls as usual and Newcastle General Hospital has 40 extra staff to ensure A&E operates as usual.
Firefighters' cash fear
North East firefighters are involved in a row over payments to their families if they die in a New York-style terrorist attack.
Firefighters are taking part in today's doomwatch exercise to test the ability of the health and emergency services to deal with a terror attack on Tyneside.
But the Fire Brigades Union revealed that some were reluctant to take part.
They are worried that if firefighters are ever called upon to deal with a real attack similar to the Twin Towers and are killed as a result, their families could suffer financially.
Fire chiefs say the family of an experienced firefighter could expect to receive around pounds 250,000 under the death benefits scheme.
But Keith Walters, Tyne & Wear chairman of the Fire Brigades Union, said they are concerned that personal insurance policies may not cover a terrorist attack and are seeking an assurance that the employers will underwrite mortgages and credit loans if a firefighter is killed.
Mr Walters said the union has taken the matter up nationally with the office of Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott. "Our members find it hard to swallow that if they are required to attend a real incident their families could be penalised if they are killed," he said. "A lot of them expressed the view that they didn't even want to take part in this exercise.
"In our view it's a bit of sham because it isn't realistic. Everything is rehearsed with firefighters in exactly the place they want them. In a real life incident that would not be the case. It's just public relations exercise."
Tyne Wear's assistant chief fire officer Iain Bathgate said: "Primarily it is a big table top exercise bringing together a range of experts as well as individuals from the emergency services and health authorities. Everybody is keen to see how we cope and I'm certain we will learn a lot."
Mr Bathgate said that if a firefighter died in a terrorist attack his or her family would receive seven times annual salary plus money from a group life assurance scheme to which the majority belong. For an experienced firefighter, this would add up to around pounds 250,000.
Mr Bathgate says there is no evidence that personal insurance will not pay out but the issue is being dealt with at national level.
"We have a responsibility to ensure our workforce is properly covered but we are talking about public money and we don't have the power to say we will underwrite personal insurance," he said.