Exercise Orion will provide a significant test of elements of UK resilience, command and coordination arrangements - with the VIP programme reaching thousands of people

The exercise is being co-financed through the contribution of the Civil Protection Financial Instrument of the European Community following a successful funding bid led by Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service.

The bid was supported by Hampshire and Lincolnshire Fire Services, the Fire Service College and Technisches Hilfswerk (THW), Germany. It is designed to test the European Union civil protection mechanism for requesting and receiving mutual aid if an event happens that requires national response capacities to be supplemented.

As well as providing a huge learning platform, Orion also gives an opportunity to showcase the UK's resilience and command structures to the rest of Europe; and a two day VIP programme will ensure that Orion leaves a lasting legacy across Europe and beyond.

Alyson Whitley, Emergency Planning Officer at Hertfordshire County Council is leading the VIP programme and is also an Assistant Programme Manager for the exercise. She is one of eight project managers reporting to the Programme Director, and Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service's Chief Fire Officer, Roy Wilsher.  Ex orion 

Alyson said: "I am part of Hertfordshire County Council's Resilience Team and the department was approached to nominate someone to lead the VIP programme and that's how I became involved.

"I had heard about the exercise and although it was in the early stages I wasn't aware of its full scope, I knew immediately that it was going to be big and challenging.

"Previously, I've been part of the management team organising the annual Hertfordshire Resilience conference; a high profile event in the resilience calendar, and that experience is standing me in good stead. A lot of the principles of planning are the same, but the EU element adds a new and interesting dimension.

"Right from the beginning I've tried to design a programme that will be beneficial to the VIPs that attend and provide additional learning. There are so many different countries with different ways of working that I'm sure we can all learn something from each other. My job is to ensure that we maximise the opportunities available to us for doing this.

"The people attending the VIP programme will be taking back what they learn to their own countries and organisations so we have the potential to reach hundreds of thousands of people.

"I started planning the conference first and built the rest of the programme around that. I came up with some broad areas of focus for the conference and then got down to specific themes and began to match potential speakers.

"Then, on January 13, the news broke that an earthquake had hit Haiti. At 7.0 magnitude, this was huge and the devastation was clear for everyone to see. This brought the impact of earthquakes to the fore of public minds and reinforced the importance of the exercise. The pressure was on to come up with a VIP programme that did Orion justice.

"We had a lot of debate about whether the VIPs should visit the live exercise site. Initially, we weren't going to include a site visit, but we decided that if they have teams involved they will want to see them in action.

"So the two day programme starts with the VIPs flying into the UK on Wednesday September 8, and travelling by coach straight to Fort Widley, the live exercise site in Hampshire. They will be taken in small groups on a guided tour of the site and will see the exercise at the height of operations. We want them to have a similar experience to the teams on the ground so they will eat at the site on the first night, before getting back on the coach to London.

"The full day conference takes place on Thursday September 9 at the BT Conference Centre in central London, and will be hosted by Hertfordshire County Council's Chief Executive, Caroline Tapster. The conference is being sponsored by BT and Hanover Associates, helping to keep costs down and within the allocated budget.

"With so many countries involved in Orion, it was difficult to know exactly who to invite and how to approach them. We decided to make initial contact with the civil protection national contact point lead for each country and ask them to forward the invitation on to the most appropriate person to nominate who they thought should attend.

"A representative from each of the 31 participating states of the European Civil Protection Mechanism has been invited along with guests sponsored by the Defense Environmental International Cooperation (DEIC), the American Military working in civil collaboration in Europe, the coordinating and associated beneficiaries and the USAR teams, as well as key players from across UK fire and resilience. Director Generals from the Participating States are among those on the guest list, with Chief Fire Officers and Chief Executives. 

"Through the two day programme, and the conference in particular, we hope to raise awareness of the EU Civil Protection mechanism and how the UK plans, prepares and approaches international cooperation. It is also an ideal opportunity to showcase what we're doing in the UK, to share our experiences with others, and learn from them to further improve our arrangements. The second day of the VIP programme in London will also hopefully give our overseas visitors a taste of the capital and what it has to offer.

"We hope to create a better understanding and make European Union countries aware that international mutual aid is available if it is needed. We also hope to build links and relationships so that if countries are approached for assistance, or find themselves in a position where they need to request assistance, the process is made smoother by knowing that we have already worked together through Orion. 

"Our UK teams will also work in places like Haiti with the international teams and Orion provides a first class opportunity to exercise for these real events.

"The biggest challenges I've faced so far have been mostly logistical. Arranging transport, accommodation and a conference venue in central London for 170 people has presented some problems. There are also security issues to consider when hosting such high profile guests.

"Another hurdle I've had to overcome was my initial lack of understanding about how the EU mechanism works, which was essential in developing the programme and inviting the right guest speakers. With some detailed research and guidance from colleagues I was able to gain the knowledge I needed but it's been a big learning curve for me, and I'm still learning new things each day.

"Logistics are still being finalised and a run through of the conference in July will give an opportunity to make any final tweaks. For me personally, if all of the delegates leave having learnt just one new thing, or taken away just one new idea, then it will be a success. The VIP programme will culminate on the Thursday evening in a conference dinner being held at the House of Lords. 

"As with all aspects of Orion, the VIP programme will be fully evaluated and I'd like to receive feedback from delegates saying that it was time well spent, they'd made some useful contacts and that they'd learnt something new or developed existing knowledge."