18 Jul 2016
Lessons we can learn in coping with a mass attack
The terrorist killings are becoming worse, and they’re killing in more gruesome ways to achieve the shock factor.
While there’s no suggestion of any new specific terrorist threat to Australia, it would prudent to look again at security for our public events following the Bastille Day attack to make sure that all necessary arrangements are in place.
The Nice attack, where Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel ploughed a truck through crowds of Bastille Day revellers on the Promenade des Anglais and killed at least 84 people and seriously injured more than 200, could easily happen here.
We’ve had three terrorist attacks in Australia in the past 14 months, with nine disrupted plots foiled. Our security agencies are investigating about 400 terrorism cases.
Violent extremists will draw inspiration from the Nice atrocity. No doubt our homegrown gen Y jihadists will look to emulate the Nice attack modus operandi.
By the depraved standards of terrorism, the Nice attack was a great success. It will make a huge impression right across the jihadist world: you don’t need to use a plane as a weapon like 9/11, but by simply grabbing a lorry and ploughing into a crowd you can mount an effective attack.
We’ve seen vehicles used in terror attacks before in China, US, Israel and Canada. But none of these attacks succeeded on anywhere near the scale of what occurred in Nice.
On the protective security side at mass gatherings here, there’ll be a need for close attention to be paid to the feasibility of putting up barriers to keep out vehicles, especially trucks. (But even here there will be a requirement to allow in cleaners, rubbish collection, media and other vehicles.)
But it will be impossible to secure some open sites though. Think here of events such as a marathon or an Anzac Day march.
One of the lessons for Australia from the Nice attack is we must think about how to protect areas beyond our capital cities.
Just as the terror attack occurred in the south of France, we’ll need to think here much more security arrangements for regional centres: places such as Bathurst, Ballarat and Bundaberg. Anzac Day commemorations on the Gold Coast, for example, draw in tens of thousands.
Local councils will need to review security arrangements for public gatherings, particularly their plans with first aid responders, like the St John Ambulance. We shouldn’t, however, cancel events; that way the jihadists win.
But no matter how many bollards we erect, we are not going to be able to protect soft targets against the sort of unsophisticated attack we saw in Nice, or the kind of knife attacks by Palestinian terrorists against Israeli citizens.
These attacks can only be stopped if we have intelligence prior to a potential attack.
What we need to do here, however, is focus more on the consequence management side.
How would we practically cope with huge numbers of fatalities? In the Black Saturday bushfires due to the number of people who died in the fires, there was a need to rapidly assemble temporary refrigerated rooms as morgues.
How would we cope with hundreds of seriously injured, particularly in a regional centre? Across Australia, we lack available air assets and retrieval teams that would be able to provide support and respond to mass casualty events.
There’s only two, sometimes three medical helicopters covering greater Sydney. The nearest others are in Orange, Newcastle and Wollongong, any of which may be more than an hour’s flying time from Sydney if on a task.
We aren’t doing enough to prepare for a mass casualty attack.
Disaster response requires a whole of service response: hot zone and tactical emergency medical response, pre-hospital care, retrieval, emergency department, and intensive care theatre. All elements should be drilled simultaneously and with simulated failings at each stage to prepare for the reality of a terrorist disaster.
There’s been no real action to address the findings several years ago of a major study the Medical Journal of Australia of the surge capacity for people in emergencies in our hospitals.
It predicted that our hospitals would be quickly overwhelmed and that 60 to 80 per cent of seriously injured patients would not have immediate access to operating theatres, and that there would be similar lack of access to ICU beds for critically injured and to x-ray facilities for less critically injured patients.
It would be useful for those responsible for counter-terrorism to engage those in our health system who understand what’s required to manage a mass casualty event.
A nationwide desktop audit of what physical facilities are available would also be a good start: we’d then be able to assess what actual preparedness is possible. It wouldn’t be that hard.
But it would require some goodwill and co-operation between the health departments of the commonwealth and state governments and the involvement of local councils.
Anthony Bergin is deputy director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Originally published: The Australian. 18 July 2016