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Gage Williams

Cornwall's eclipse co-ordinator

Gage Williams is a retired brigadier who became Cornwall's eclipse co- ordinator after telling the County Council to get their act together or risk being unprepared for a major disaster during eclipse week.

His bravado stretched to telling them that they needed an eclipse co- ordinator and that he was the man for the job. Weeks later Cornwall County Council advertised for an eclipse co-ordinator and in April 1998 Williams was confirmed in the post.

His first act was to document the logistical challenges - movement, parking, accommodation, food, water, sewage and refuse, fuel, cash and banking and emergency services.

Williams says: 'I sat down one weekend and thought about everything that could happen. The report has only changed as we toned down our predictions of numbers to about 1.5M.'

Williams has sat on every working party set up to establish the normal capacity of the county for a particular service and compare it against the likely numbers expected. 'We then develop systems and methods to meet the gap,' he says.

He has also helped co-ordinate the county's response to a potential disaster such as an aeroplane crash on the A30.

'We have practised our procedure for dealing with a major disaster under the police's gold, silver and bronze disaster management system. We would install a bronze HQ near the incident, silver at county level and gold at the main control centres in Exeter. The police will be in overall control but we have practised the procedure of exactly who else we could call on. We've developed a directory of key contacts to call.'

Williams likens the 'what ifs' challenge to his 31 years in the Light Infantry before he took voluntary redundancy in 1995. He says: 'Working in the Light Infantry was all about having contingency plans up your sleeve. You never knew what the enemy was going to do.'

Leading up to the event, Williams says he has a good idea of what the people of the UK are going to do from a string of national surveys he commissioned. The latest, carried out on 28 July, asked how visitors would travel, when they will arrive and leave and what accommodation they have booked. The surveys carried out by market researcher RSGB predict that despite a limit of 315,000 cars which could physically get past Exeter over 24 hours, up to 1M people could be travelling into Cornwall from Saturday to Tuesday before Wednesday's eclipse, and staying for an average of just 4.2 days.

Two weeks before E-day, hotels near the tip of Cornwall were fully booked and others were said to be 95% booked. Original forecasts that campsites holding 50,000 people would be needed have not materialised. Some local people are said to blame Williams for over-hyping the event. Williams refutes suggestions that he has been responsible for the 'gridlock on the roads, crazy prices and hotels booked up two years ahead' stories which have appeared in the national press. He says: 'We have suffered very badly from horror stories. Gridlock was an unfortunate word the police kept using.'

He is confident that he will instead be remembered for co-ordinating a response to a major event that will be used as a model for local authorities preparing for the Millennium.

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