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Behind the scenes: What Irish officials do when a crisis happens abroad

Here’s what happens at the Department of Foreign Affairs when an emergency takes place.

WHAT HAPPENS AT the Department of Foreign Affairs’ consular crisis centre when an emergency takes place abroad?

TheJournal.ie recently visited the office to see what goes on behind the scenes during a crisis.

IMG_20160427_174452 Colm Ó Conaill

The department’s crisis centre was activated eight times in last 12 or 13 months – for natural disasters such as the earthquake in Nepal, the balcony collapse tragedy in Berkeley and the terror attacks in Paris, Tunisia and most recently Brussels.

Colm Ó Conaill, the deputy director of consular assistance for crisis planning and responses, said an incident is classed as ‘major’ when it involves or potentially involves multiple Irish citizens.

IMG_20160427_175318 Emergency helplines

The centre has 24 phone lines (which can be ramped up to 36) that are activated for the crisis hotline and can go live within one hour of an incident if it happens during Irish business hours, or within two hours if it’s outside this period.

During emergency responses, the core consular staff is supplemented by other trained staff from the department. They deal with managing information and public communications, as well as contact with organisations such as the gardaí, the Defence Forces, the HSE and the DAA.

Ó Conaill says the most important thing during crises is maintaining contact with the families of those involved or potentially involved.

IMG_20160427_175045 Pat Bourne and Minister Charlie Flanagan

Staff members cross-check information with various sources to find out if Irish citizens are safe, and provide consular assistance to families.

Planning for the Euros and Olympics 

Ó Conaill says employees train regularly, carrying out simulations and making contingency plans on an ongoing basis. They are currently looking ahead to Euro 2016 and the Olympics.

“Each crisis will automatically include a lessons learned exercise,” he notes.

Ó Conaill urged all citizens travelling abroad to register their details with the department, especially if they are going to more remote or high risk destinations as this allows the consulate to help them more quickly if a crisis occurs.

The department has previously issued travel information for people attending the Euros, and plans to release a travel advice app in the next few weeks. This will allow users to favourite destinations and get tailored alerts and travel advice for where they are going.

IMG_20160427_175037 Kit and equipment used when diplomats and officials are deployed overseas

Pat Bourne, director of consular services, said that of the 2,400 cases the centre handled last year, about 250 dealt with deaths. Some of the common issues they have to deal with include Irish citizens being hospitalised, arrested or the victims of crime.

“We’re constantly refining our response … It’s a well-equipped centre and we also have some capacity to deploy volunteers overseas if we need to bolster our response on the ground,” Bourne noted.

Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan added that the work done in the consular and passport offices is carried out “mostly under the radar” but is “is hugely important … for the department as a public service and indeed for the country”.

All images: Órla Ryan/TheJournal.ie

Read: French TV channel broadcasts gruesome video of apparent Paris café suicide bombing

Read: Gardaí say they’d ‘run around like headless chickens’ in the event of a terrorist attack

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About the author:

Órla Ryan

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