Axing of search and rescue role stuns family who lost son at sea

Alan Hampton, left, and Duncan Powell were on the boat Hard Out 2 when it sunk off Whanganui in 2008. Alan's son ...
Ross Giblin

Alan Hampton, left, and Duncan Powell were on the boat Hard Out 2 when it sunk off Whanganui in 2008. Alan's son Geoffrey, 19, died in his father's arms while waiting for the rescue team.

The axing of a key search and rescue role in a police restructure has stunned a Manawatu family, who fear it will foster the same staffing deficiencies that contributed to their son's death. 

After Geoffrey Mark Hampton died at sea amid a bungled search and rescue operation in 2008, his parents wanted to ensure it didn't happen to another family. 

But those hopes have been undermined by police scrapping its search and rescue (SAR) co-ordinator role, a job established at the Coroner's recommendation in the wake of Hampton's death. 

The Rongotea man had been celebrating his 19th birthday and fishing with his father Alan Hampton and boat owner Duncan Powell when their boat took on water and sank off the Whanganui coast on February 23.

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Geoffrey Hampton died in his father's arms after floating at sea for 12 hours. It would be another four hours before the older men, suffering from severe hypothermia, would be rescued. 

Palmerston North coroner Carla na Nagara's inquest found police failed to follow best practice after only one policeman headed the search, and an alert sent to the 10 other volunteer SAR members failed to raise support.

At her recommendation, police established a SAR district operations manager role. The position included strategic planning and oversight, creation and maintenance of various rescue plans, acquisition and maintenance of equipment, oversight of best practice and training, risk management, creation and maintenance of SAR partnerships.

In a statement to Stuff, Alan and Jenny Hampton said it was extremely disappointing to learn this  role had now been dropped.

"The disestablishment of this position simply winds back the clock and sets the scene for history to repeat itself."

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They said the role was established as the police's mitigation to their own admitted failings during the rescue nine years earlier.

Central District commander Superintendent Sue Schwalger said the SAR position was transferred to senior sergeant level and now included looking after the armed offenders squads, police negotiating team and police dogs.  

"We believe that responding to SAR requirements is best achieved by ensuring this activity is well managed locally." 

The Hamptons said it was alarming that Schwalger said "local level" was the most appropriate way to manage a SAR response.

"[The 2008 rescue] was managed at a local level, resulting in tragedy for our family."

The flawed rescue exposed a lack of marine SAR training, lack of police responders, inter-agency breakdown through dysfunctional relationships and 'patch protection' issues resulting in lack of response and inappropriate or no procedures being followed. 

             Some police officers conveyed similar reservations about scrapping the SAR role in staff submissions on the police restructure, called Project Balance, which were requested by Stuff under the Official Information Act.

"I simply would not be able to remove myself from my CIB workload to attend to the task the co-ordinator role covers, including but not limited to looking after a register of available land/sea/or assets, maintaining readiness plans, organising SAR training," one submission said. 

Another said they had never submitted any feedback for any other consolation before, but felt strongly the SAR role being disestablished was a backwards step.

In 2015, New Zealand chief coroner, Judge Deborah Marshall made a submission to the Corners Amendment Bill following a review of the Coroners Act 2006.

In it, Marshall supported the addition of a clause to require mandatory responses to a Coroner's recommendations as it would increase the operational efficiency of the Coroners Act.

"Currently, a lack of response to proposed recommendations or comments may mean that the final recommendations or comments are less robust and useful.

"Without this power the role of the coroner is limited as there is no sanction for ignoring a recommendation."

 - Stuff

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