Your eyes narrow dangerously as approaching Easingwold you veer off the A19 along nearly a mile of driveway towards the vast Victorian mansion, owned by the Home Office, and known as The Hawkhills.

Out there within its surrounding 200 acres of woodland, silhouetted in fading winter light, are the Black Plantation and Doom Plantation, names redolent of danger, secrecy and evil reflecting the horrors of a violent century.

Many residents of Easingwold drive past its entrance gates with a sense of malevolence and foreboding. After all, wasn't this home built by 19th century mining magnate Joseph Love, the place the Ministry of Works bought in 1937 as an "anti gas" school, later known as an air raid precaution school? Where gas clouds trailed and lingered like yellow fog in the tree branches? Where there was once a house known as Chlorine Cottage?

Wasn't this where there were a number of underground nuclear shelters and inexplicably damaged buildings?

Yes, yes. But the truth is not quite as chilling nowadays as everyone seems to want it to be. Even though disaster remains its theme, there's absolutely nothing top secret about Hawkhills which today is the Home Office Emergency Planning College. Indeed, its brilliant staff of civil servants want to shout its activities from its many-chimneyed rooftops.

Its brief is the ultimate in crisis management - providing a forum for often disparate agencies to co-ordinate their emergency planning practices. By bracing ourselves properly for a disaster we could prevent it - or at least stop it becoming a catastrophe.

Last year thousands of delegates, mostly top and middle managers attended its programme of residential seminars and workshops, many of them staying in the available 70 rooms.

Most - around 47 per cent - were from local authorities with around 15 per cent from emergency services and the balance from the private and voluntary sector, central government, the armed forces, the National Health Service and businesses.

But there was also a vast variety of medical and other professional institutions using its amazing facilities for their development programmes - including a 125-seat lecture theatre, a conference room, two seminar and nine syndicate rooms, lounges, bars and an emergency planning library - headed by librarian John Parkinson - regarded by Europe as the best in the UK

And increasingly delegates from businesses have arrived there to learn about the problems and challenges of maintaining commercial continuity when doom strikes. As an aside they might also have gleaned some sharp lessons, using Hawkhills as an example of how to avoid a commercial disaster, but more of this later.

Visitors still have to enunciate their arrival into an automatic barrier microphone, James Bond-style, before being given 'open sesame', but the welcome they ultimately receive in Hawkhills' wood-panelled reception area with ornately carved stairwell is huge and happy.

My host was Dr Mike Rook, the genial programme manager who has just launched his prospectus for the year 2000.

It's a huge recipe for disaster management, from major traffic incidents, biological spillage and safety at mass gatherings like festivals and sports stadia to marine, rail and aircraft emergencies and disasters at schools. It will take eight full time course lecturers, two part timers seconded from the National Health Service and some 550 visiting experts to complete.

Famous faces among these lecturers have been television correspondents Kate Adie and Jon Snow helping to give news-givers at disasters some perspective on how to meet the information needs of the world's media.

But, says Dr Rook, despite

the thousands of visitors,

the posting up of its details on the Internet (on, broad circulation of the prospectus and even public walks around its grounds, Hawkhills still unfairly has an image problem.

He says: "It is part of the mythology of the area that we were doing some nefarious sort of work. For the past ten years we have not been involved in war scenarios or bombs. We have become an emergency planning college.

"Essentially all our events are inter-agencies, providing a forum for different organisations to weld in a role in an emergency, spending three or five days here to see how they would respond.

"From local authorities could be an environmental health officer, building control officers, finance people, those managing contracts for feeding people in schools, day centres, hospitals and transport managers."

Dr Rook avoids talking about scenarios of doom. Naturally, there are lessons to be learned from actual examples of toxic release from chemical sites, nuclear or oil refinery emissions, rail crashes or aircraft falling from the sky.

"But don't get too fixated on the scenario. More important are the practicalities - how you would provide a hot meal for several thousand people at short notice. How you would get vital information to the community at 2am. How you can organise schools and other public buildings into emergency accommodation."

Unlike countries prone to earthquakes or volcano eruptions where was no formal disaster force in the UK. When disasters did happen here we had to rely on the co-ordination of local expertise.

Dr Rook says: "On Yorkshire County Council and the City of York Council we have a few people drawing up emergency plans but they come to nothing unless people know the rules. A plan is just a piece of paper until people are trained and have an exercise.

"When delegates come here they already know their job but in a disaster they have to integrate and work at a slightly higher level.

"Every time you read in the newspaper that a major emergency plan is enacted, whether by local authorities or hospitals, some aspect will have been handled by the work that we do here."

The Emergency Planning College itself should be an object lesson to businesses on economic survival. A few years ago, the college was costing the taxpayer around £3 million per year.

But now the order has gone out from the Home Office that there should be "a full cost recovery remit". In other words the deficit has to be wiped out.

According to Ian Barnard, information manager, the shortfall has been gradually whittled "and now we are ahead of target to close the gap to zero by April, 2001."

There are no copyright fees at this college, where the idea is to train key people to cascade their knowledge downwards. All the cutbacks were achieved through greater efficiency.

He says: "We have expanded into other areas like crowd management for which there is a great demand at inter-agency level, like festivals and football stadia.

"We also look at business continuity in the event of a disaster.

"And we have spread our costs by delivering more off-site. This year almost 50 per cent of local authority chief executives have attended our off-site courses."

Major retail chains, manufacturing companies, food producers and heavy industries have called on their lecturers to talk to management at scenarios covering media problems, IT failures and hostile acts. How do you respond and simultaneously keep the show on the road?

The Millennium bug threat resulted in a series of 11 seminars at major regional centres to study potential problems. It was attended by 1,200 people "who went back and cascaded the knowledge because they were senior to middle management."

As a follow-up next month there will be a two-day "Millennium Wash Up" starting February 14 to capitalise on the planning and co-ordination that went into the celebrations and the anti-bug preparations - and it is so well-subscribed that a second two-day event will be held starting March 13.

Converted for the new archive on 30 June 2000. Some images and formatting may have been lost in the conversion.