NSW Health Counter Disaster Unit
The Hon. JAN BURNSWOODS: My question is addressed to the Minister for Health. What is the latest information on the counter disaster and terrorism preparedness of NSW Health?
The Hon. JOHN HATZISTERGOS: I thank the honourable member for this timely question, particularly in light of criticisms on the weekend by the Royal Australian College of Surgeons. In February 2003, the New South Wales Government announced the allocation of $17.3 million over five years to upgrade the capacity of NSW Health to deal with major incidents and possible terrorist attacks. As a result, the NSW Health Counter Disaster Unit was created and located within the Ambulance Service. Under the co-ordination of the State Health Services Functional Area Co-ordinator, the unit is responsible for the planning of responses and recovery actions for all aspects of disaster medicine, including the provision of appropriately trained medical, public health and mental health teams.
Co-location of the Counter Disaster Unit within the Ambulance Service provides significant synergy through integrating expertise in ambulance primary response and incident management, with specialised treatment and consequence management by the broader health system. Additional benefits have also been realised through combining specialised equipment acquisitions and training services. Today, New South Wales is at the forefront of the States and Territories in its health counter-disaster preparedness. The NSW Health Counter Disaster Unit has had considerable disaster deployment experience, including bush fires, Bali, the Waterfall train crash, and most recently the Asian tsunami disaster. The State's preparedness capacity has been significantly increased under the $17.3 million plan over five years to bolster the capacity of NSW Health to counter the consequences of terrorism and disasters. The implementation of capacity improvements is progressing within planned time frames and budget. This includes the recent establishment of a co-ordinated network of major trauma centres in Sydney and Newcastle.
Such an integrated trauma care system enhances our ability to manage an acute disaster or terrorist event. Should a terrorist event occur in New South Wales, patient distribution is enhanced by ensuring the most severely injured survivors are preferentially distributed to one of our nine adult trauma centres and two paediatric trauma centres. Strategies will include recalling staff, reallocating operating theatre time, distributing casualties to a number of hospitals, mobilising clinical networks such as the burns network, and transferring less serious patients to other hospitals. Results of planning exercises and capacity studies indicate that appropriate trauma resources, including intensive care unit and high-dependency beds can be made rapidly available in the health system.
Other important advances in preparedness in the NSW Health system include the upgrade of five extra hospitals with decontamination units—Sydney, St Vincent's, Gosford, John Hunter and Wollongong. These sites are in addition to the seven sites that were upgraded prior to the Olympics. They also include the availability of mobile decontamination equipment that can be rapidly deployed to other sites should the need arise. Further funds are earmarked to upgrade rural emergency departments this financial year. Further important advances include the distribution of personal protective equipment for chemical emergencies across the State, in addition to the current stockpile purchased pre-Olympics. Special operations pods have been purchased and stocked with personal protective equipment for rapid deployment. Stores of antidotes against chemical attack are in place, and the Ambulance Service also has a number of fully operational multipurpose vehicles that may be deployed to incidents involving a chemical attack.
Major incident support vehicles are also fully stocked with life-saving trauma equipment for rapid deployment to a disaster site. Back-up supplies are also warehoused in the event of the deployment of the urban search and rescue task force, which includes paramedics and doctors with specialist training and skills. A stockpile of equipment has been purchased and is in place for a bio-terrorism emergency. In addition to equipment purchases and upgrades, the NSW Health bio-surveillance system was established in 2003. The system is designed to increase the chance of early detection of a disease arising from a biological weapon. Planning is well advanced in the construction of a high-security laboratory that will improve forensic capability in the event of a terrorist attack The Government does not underestimate the substantial challenges that would transpire should terrorism occur in New South Wales. But I am confident that NSW Health and the Ambulance Service would mount a well-planned and capable response in such an event.