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Airborne Hazards Emergency Response (AHER)

The Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal fire in 2005, also known as the Buncefield incident, highlighted the need for a specialised unit to coordinate the response to such air pollution events. This led to the creation of the Air Quality Cell (AQC) for England and Wales followed by the Airborne Hazard Emergency Response (AHER) in Scotland.

During major incidents it is AHER that ensures a comprehensive and expert-driven approach to managing risks from air pollution is followed. Under our leadership, the collaboration of air quality, public health, and food safety experts allows for a well-rounded assessment, and provision of informed advice.

When a significant fire, chemical spill, or gas release occurs, partner agencies such as the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, site operators, or members of the public notify us via our pollution hotline. Calls are then directed to one of our Air Hazard Advisors (AHAs) who conduct a risk assessment for the incident. If a potentially significant risk to public health is identified, the AHA collaborates with Public Health Scotland to jointly assess the situation. If necessary, an Air Hazard Advice Cell (AHAC) will be established, and they may advise the need for air quality monitoring.

When a decision to initiate air quality monitoring is made, our field response teams are activated and dispatched to a suitable location agreed upon by the AHAC. On site, the team utilise various instruments to monitor a wide range of gases and airborne pollutants. The information collected assists emergency services and other agencies in accurately assessing the situation and making informed decisions to protect the public.

The AHAC plays a critical role in managing incidents with potential airborne hazards. It is a multi-agency group comprising experts in air quality, public health, food safety and weather modelling. Permanent members include:

  • Scottish Environment Protect Agency: Air quality and monitoring teams.
  • Public Health Scotland: Environmental public health.
  • Food Standards Scotland: Food safety.
  • Met Office: Plume modelling and forecasting.

In addition to the above agencies the AHAC will seek to include representatives from the NHS Health Board and Local Authority in whose boundary the incident is occurring. The AHAC may also seek input from the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, Health and Safety Laboratory, technical experts from the site involved and any others with relevant expertise.

The job of the AHAC is to assess the situation, determine monitoring requirements, review any data collected and prepare advice with respect to protecting public health. The outputs from the AHAC are communicated to groups which coordinate the broader response efforts, such as the Scientific and Technical Advice Cell (STAC) and Resilience Partnership (RP).

When a major incident threatens air quality, advice will be provided by the emergency services to those most at risk to either shelter indoors with windows, vents and doors closed, or to evacuate. This advice is based upon well-established understanding of the adverse health effects resulting from prolonged exposure to smoke and toxic gases.

The AHER field response team typically deploys to areas on the periphery of the smoke or gas plume. This strategic positioning allows them to determine the extent and possible movement of the plume thus providing accurate safety information to individuals on the outside of the shelter/evacuate zone.

This approach ensures that the team can operate safely while providing essential information to the wider community not subject to any specific shelter advice.

AHER was established to support public health advice in the event of major incidents involving industrial activities. It doesn’t deploy to certain air pollution events, including:

  • Short-term Incidents: Events expected to resolve within 1 to 2 days.
  • Natural Events: Such as wildfires or volcanic ash clouds.
  • Occupational or Regulatory: Monitoring related to workplace exposure or enforcement of environmental regulations.
  • Radiological, Nuclear, Biological: Events requiring specialist monitoring or advice.
  • Hostile Incidents: Involving unidentified chemical agents with intent to harm.

However, depending on the incident we may opt to form an AHAC to provide technical or scientific advice in support of multi-agency response efforts.

Training for AHER

Fortunately, the need for AHER field response teams to deploy is rare, yet it is crucial that we stay well-practiced and prepared to act immediately. To ensure our operational readiness, we consistently test our systems and conduct both tabletop and live exercises.

In 2023, we were kindly given the opportunity to conduct an exercise at the state-of-the-art Scottish Fire and Rescue Service National Training Centre in Cambuslang, South Lanarkshire. This exercise aimed to mimic a significant petrochemical fire, and the fire service graciously engaged their Petrochemical Unit to provide our staff with an immersive and realistic experience. The day not only gave the staff involved a refresher in AHER operating procedures and the equipment we use but did so in a live, albeit controlled, fire environment.

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service's generous cooperation in conducting this exercise underscores the importance of collaboration with our counterparts in other agencies. Although we spearhead AHER, its delivery would be impossible without our partners' support, and we are constantly striving to fortify these relationships.

Developing AHER

While our procedures and equipment are proven and reliable, we continuously strive to enhance the future resilience of AHER by investing in delivering the highest quality service possible. In the 2023-2024 financial year, we made substantial investments to replace aging AHER vehicles with modern, efficient alternatives and to upgrade essential equipment to the most current generation. These investments emphasise our dedication to providing this service to the people of Scotland for years to come.

Developing AHER involves not just enhancing resilience through the replacement of older equipment, but keeping informed of the rapid technological advancements that could aid our delivery methods. We continually review the market for cutting-edge equipment and novel approaches to air quality measurement, recognising significant potential for AHER amid the ongoing enhancements in sensor technology.