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Airborne hazards emergency response service

Scotland’s emergency air pollution response service, the Airborne hazards emergency response (AHER) service, is led by us.

The explosion and major fire at the Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal in 2005 (known as the Buncefield incident highlighted the need for an emergency service that would provide co-ordinated data and advice on airborne hazards during large scale incidents. 

In Scotland, we are the lead agency for this emergency service, while the Environment Agencyis responsible for any such provision in England and Wales.

What is the Airborne hazard emergency response (AHER) service?

In the event of a serious incident – such as a chemical fire, an explosion at an industrial site or a release of gases – our AHER field response team can be deployed at short notice to the site of the incident. Their job is to monitor air quality and provide information to support the work of the emergency services and other agencies.

See AHER’s mobile response team in action.

If there is a significant release of toxic gases, this poses a threat to human health and must be monitored to ensure that the appropriate steps are taken to prevent harm.

Once on site, our team will use various instruments to monitor a wide range of gases and airborne pollutants. The information we collect is used by the emergency services and the other agencies involved, to assist them in correctly assessing the situation and in making decisions on the best course of action to protect the public.

Throughout the duration of the incident, we continue to monitor the air quality in the local area, until the risk has reduced to a level where the partner agencies agree monitoring can be stepped down.

We lead this project in partnership with Health Protection Scotland, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and other agencies, including:

AHER in action: responding to a tyre fire

AHER is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, ready to respond to emergencies and quickly deploy teams to the site of an incident.

An example of the importance of the team’s swift response is illustrated by the course of action we took when an illegal tyre-dumping site caught fire.

The blaze centred on about 50 tonnes of illegally dumped tyres and was expected to burn for a number of days. From the wind speed and direction, it was clear that the nearest site that was a cause for concern was local Primary school, located less than half a mile away to the east of the site.

Working with the Fire and Rescue Service and Health Protection Scotland, our Field Response Team (FRT) moved monitoring equipment to the school, where field officers worked around the clock to gather information on airborne gases and particulates.

Although it was initially discovered that high levels of soot particles were present, these soon dropped to acceptable background levels. The fire was brought under control over the next few days, while the FRT (with local Chemistry staff) continued to monitor and report on air quality.

Information provided by the AHER team was vital in reassuring the local community that no significant dangers to health were present and ensuring that appropriate steps were taken to maintain air quality around the site.

The successful outcome of the incident showed that a swift response by trained, skilled teams, working in strong partnerships, provides a valuable tool to help with the protection of Scotland’s environment and the health and safety of its people.

Developing AHER

We continue to develop the service, both within SEPA and with our external partners, in order to improve our ability to respond to incidents.

Site Specific Modelling

In collaboration with colleagues from the Met Office, we use computer models to help identify how weather conditions affect levels of risk around major industrial sites, such as Grangemouth.

Using information about features of the local climate such as wind direction, we can plan how best to respond, should an incident takes place.

These plans can then be used alongside information about any chemicals or materials involved in a major incident, leading to a more rapid response and helping to protect both the public and the environment more effectively.

Laboratory analysis

Our laboratory capabilities mean we can quickly analyse samples collected on-site by our field teams, allowing us to measure the levels of polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and mercury in the air at the scene of an incident.

This information then allows us to identify any potential hazards to health or the environment.

Emergency planning

In the event of a major accident, it is vital to ensure that everybody involved knows exactly what they need to do.

AHER has taken part in a number of desk-based and live play exercises, testing out a variety of emergency response plans.

Exercises such as these are important, as they give our team the opportunity to rehearse how best to support the emergency services in a number of different situations.  

Contact us   

For more information, advice or details on any of the work that AHER carries out, please contact us.