When bad calls trump good calls

Last updated 05:00 01/03/2014

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OPINION: It beggars belief that a police communicator had received no instruction in the significance of Rapid (Rural Address Property Identification) numbers.

A large part of the reason these numbers have become such a familiar part of country roading landscape is that emergency services, police included, have been so ardently encouraging property owners to use them. They make it much easier to identify, quickly, where an emergency is.

An Independent Police Conduct Authority ruling into the botched police response to night-time warnings of cattle on the Old Coach Rd, out of Mataura, fully an hour before a serious collision cost a motorist his leg, makes uneasy reading.

When motorist Phil Richmond only just avoided hitting one of two cattlebeast in the early morning of June 1, 2012, he was unable to rouse people from two nearby farmhouses. Of course he called the police. As best he could figure, he told them the animals were 8km or 9km out of Mataura. Actually, it was closer to 13, but the big thing was Mr Richmond did exactly the right thing and provided the nearest Rapid number that would have pinned the location down nicely.

But the Police Southern Communications (SouthComms) officer who took the call did not record the Rapid number. He later told the authority he was unaware of its significance.

This in itself is hard to understand, given that it's nowadays a pretty-much-fundamental locational system.

The police have told media he hadn't received that training. Weird enough in itself, this does not tie in exactly with what the authority says in its report, which is that the officer said he could not recall whether he had been trained in Rapid numbers - and that it "cannot be definitively established" whether he did, because the police did not record all elements of particular training courses for individual staff. However, police did confirm to the authority that "current communicator training" includes training in the use of Rapid numbers.

But hang on. The officer had four years' experience at SouthComms as a dispatcher and communicator. The authority said it simply "does not accept" that he had never come across Rapid numbers during that time. It won't be alone in that view.

In any case it gets worse.

The information, lacking the precision of the Rapid number, went into the system and to a dispatcher who sent two officers to the road. They reported back to the dispatcher, at 2.55am that they found nothing. The dispatcher updated the entry to the status of no further action being required.

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Just two minutes after that, a second call came in to the communicator about cattle on the road. Under his training, he was meant to record that call as a new event. He didn't do it. Had he done so, the dispatcher would have seen this extra information and realised that there was, indeed, still a problem.

Sadly a third call came in, this time from an ambulance, at 3.32am. A truck and trailer unit driven by Dunedin man Chris Campbell had ploughed into the one of the cattle and tipped on its side. Mr Campbell survived but lost his leg.

The authority's language is interesting. It said the first omission, to pass the Rapid number on to the dispatched officers, was "undesirable" but the second, breaching call-taking instructions, was "unjustified'. The communicator has been subjected to disciplinary process.

Mr Campbell bears no grudge against the apologetic police and focuses his reproach on the farmer. Wandering stock does remain a serious issue. But on top of that, police and public alike must identify what happened here as two never-to-be repeated mistakes.

- The Southland Times

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