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General Background

There is a growing concern that accidental or deliberate releases of hazardous materials into the atmosphere can lead to catastrophic results in terms of population casualties and damage to infrastructures and ecosystems. Therefore, a major challenge in applied environmental sciences is the development of local-scale emergency response tools for tracking and predicting airborne hazards from accidental or deliberate releases, such as terrorist attacks. The dispersion of airborne hazardous agents is a principal concern of communities and emergency managers which have to be prepared to deal with instantaneous releases from industrial sites, energy facilities, transportation of hazardous materials or even a CBRN terrorist attack. Different types of computational models have been developed, implemented and partially validated. Significant improvement was achieved for dispersion models in terms of air quality control and environmental health risk assessment. The continuous increase in computing power enables the use of advanced models in the context of local and neighbourhood-scale releases of toxic and harmful substances. The models allow emergency first responders and management to plan for, to train for and to respond to accidents adequately, also at the very local scale, where the related risks and threats are extremely high. A variety of tools is applied or under development in different European countries and the need to harmonize and improve the techniques and procedures becomes more and more crucial within and beyond Europe.

The different scientific approaches and tools provided for modelling the dispersion of airborne hazards range from simple parametric and Gaussian methods to Lagrangian dispersion models and sophisticated pre-event CFD-based methods with subsequent fast data access. The various types of models and methodologies have specific advantages and disadvantages regarding efficiency, quality and reliability of the results generated for a given release scenario. In this context, it is often not clear what the limitations of an individual model approach are, where and when models can be applied with confidence and how reliable the predictions are. In reality, the situation is usually even more complicated since for accidental or deliberate incidents the duration of the release is often very short (minutes) and the source type is usually only partially known (e.g. amount and type of material released).

Moreover, in a typical local threat scenario the time for reacting to a given release is short and the local meteorological conditions are unknown or not instantly available at the desired level of accuracy. Because of the variety of methodologies developed and applied by different organizations involved in emergency response management, even for a well-defined release scenario a variety of answers can be expected to be given to the emergency response personnel.

Research activities focusing on local-scale hazard dispersion are typically based on national activities and generally lack a concerted approach at European level. A dedicated interdisciplinary and inter-institutional platform for scientific information exchange, consensus building and model improvement is thus required. COST provides the best available mechanism for broad European networking and capacity-building. A COST Action was the most appropriate framework since only in a non competitive, interdisciplinary environment it would be possible to identify and verbalize the weaknesses and uncertainties related to local-scale emergency response modeling approaches, to develop common strategies for improving the performance of such tools and to develop and broaden the available research expertise.

The intended COST Action involved, supported and harmonized the various existing national activities and explicitly extended the scientific focus towards short-term and local-scale threats, which most often concern the local emergency services. It benefited from the results of previous COST Actions, such as 615, 710, 715, 728 and 732. One innovative aspect of the proposed Action was the effort of bringing together scientists and experts in emergency response in order to push development and implementation of state-of-the-art scientifically justified methodologies of local scale airborne hazard modelling in emergency response systems. In order to ensure a direct impact of the scientific output, the Action was characterized by a high level of specialization and aimed at a well defined target. Based on the joint expertise and contacts with international programmes, the Action succeeded in harmonizing with the most recent developments in the USA and Japan.