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Preparing for the Worst

4 minute read

Londons tallest office building, the 50-storey Canary Wharf tower, held an evacuation drill for its 27 tenants and their 7,500 employees two weeks ago. The building was emptied in less than half an hour.

That might be considered an accomplishment, except that people were given plenty of advance notice and were allowed to use the elevators. That sums up how London is handling preparations for possible terrorist attacks in the wake of Sept. 11 — well-meaning efforts masking serious questions about how vulnerable the British capital might be if terrorists make it their next target. In fact, some key emergency planning experts say the entire country is ill-prepared for a large-scale terrorist incident, particularly a chemical or biological attack.

“We can handle a Lockerbie disaster,” says Ian Hoult, general secretary of the Emergency Planning Society, an organization representing 500 government emergency planners across England and Wales. “But if something happened here on the scale of what happened in New York, or we had some form of bioterrorism, we would be totally overwhelmed.”

The British government seems to be recognizing those concerns. It is reportedly considering appointing a minister to oversee homeland security efforts, and last month, the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, a Cabinet-level emergency planning team established in July to deal with such problems as foot-and-mouth disease, sent local authorities a report about chemical and biological warfare. Warning that “an attack is possible,” the document paints a chilling picture of how quick and deadly a terrorist attack could be: “The immediate reaction window may be less than one minute,” while “it may be some time before national resources arrive on the scene.”

Local authorities ability to respond on their own is hampered by a lack of funds. Since 1992, the government has cut the emergency planning budget it gives to local authorities by more than $15 million. The 171 civil defense authorities throughout England and Wales now operate on a total budget of just over $20 million annually. The Emergency Planning Society is lobbying central government for a significant increase in the budget local authorities are given for civil defense. It wants to see the budget rise to $145 million. Top of the list of improvements, says Brian Ward, chairman of the society, is a new emergency communications system to replace the existing one, which is at least 10 years old.

Eran Bauer, co-founder and managing director of Civil Defence Supply, a company that supplies police, military and security products, says he purchased 60,000 decontamination kits last December from the Ministry of Defence. Yet so far he has been able to sell only a third of them to local councils, districts and police departments. “When I make sales calls to people working in emergency services, they tell me they would like to have them but they have no money and do not know where they would get the training to properly use them,” says Bauer.

Eric Alley, a former civil defense adviser to the Home Office and now president emeritus of the Institute of Civil Defence and Disaster Studies, traces the current crisis back to 1968, when then Prime Minister Harold Wilson disbanded the Civil Defence Corps for budgetary reasons. Then receiving around $48 million a year from the Home Office, the corps had countless resources to call on in an emergency. According to Alley, who was an emergency planning officer at the time, there were 250,000 registered volunteers who had all been trained in rescue, first aid, command-and-control operations and community organization. A further 12,000 scientists were registered to give advice on nuclear, biological and chemical weapons to both local and central government. There were 12 regional command-and-control bunkers throughout England, Wales and Scotland, as well as vast stockpiles of equipment, including gas masks. “Overnight, the funding was cut to 8 million [USD19 million at the time], and now it is not much better,” says Alley.

Thirty years later, Britain has no registered civilian defense volunteers, no official scientific advisers for local authorities and few stockpiles of equipment. Two years ago the government started selling off all the regional bunkers. “It is well known within the E.U. that Britain is the worst country for civilian protection,” says Alley. “We are back as a nation to the year 1938, when war was approaching and we had no civil defense.”

A spokesperson for the Civil Contingencies Secretariat declined to comment, saying only that “the government will be reviewing the situation in light of the events of Sept. 11.”

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