Earthquake emergency response seriously faulty - something must be done

Last updated 05:00 03/11/2012

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OPINION: When the emergency organisations entered the Hagley Park commemoration service, three weeks after the February 22 earthquake, they were greeted with prolonged applause. Shocked Cantabrians knew that they were acknowledging the bravery of women and men who had put pressing personal concerns aside and gone into the rubble, saving lives, tending the wounded, giving comfort, keeping order, restoring services. The first responders were heroes, and they remain so even as the detail of their organisations' efforts is subjected to unforgiving scrutiny.

Whatever the faults of the response units, the dedication of the individuals involved is unassailable. It transcends matters of command and control and will remain gratefully etched in the memory of the city and province.

Neither will the overall success of the work done in those terrible days be threatened by the emerging evidence that all of the organisations involved could have done better because they were inadequately prepared for the task and sometimes poorly led. Despite that, they significantly lessened the potential impact of the earthquake.

To some degree the response was bound to be faulty because of the magnitude of the task faced and its unprecedented nature. The material destruction was huge and the impact on citizens traumatic. The numbers of those under the fallen masonry was unknown. The ability of the city to stagger on was problematic. The possibility of mass evacuation loomed. No matter how effectively conceived, the first-response plans were bound to at least unravel at the edges in the face of so pervasive a catastrophe.

But it is not so slight a weakness that investigations are exposing. Civil Defence's report on its performance shows basic faults in its organisation, similarly with the Fire Service. The inquest into the deaths of those in the Canterbury Television Building is showing disorganisation that might have cost lives.

The value of the inquest is that it is presenting details of a particular event, in a way that the other two reports do not, and in doing so highlights obvious flaws. That they hampered the efforts to save people from the flaming and collapsed building is heart-wrenching but therefore likely to force changes that will prevent a repeat of such a disaster. They are too serious to ignore.

Foremost of the reforms must be the establishment of a more seamless and resilient chain of command, to prevent a repeat of the deadly game between rival organisations played out on the corner of Cashel and Madras.

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There, the police, Fire Service and Urban Search and Rescue were unable to quickly decide who was in command and what method should be used to rescue the trapped survivors. The coroner will decide if the confusion contributed to the deaths but it is already clear that the disarray could not have helped.

The confusion should not have occurred. It is astonishing that the organisations had not previously agreed on a protocol ensuring a command structure fell into place and that rescue techniques were uniform. Not to have done so was bound to cause a fractured response, and so it proved to be.

If the command issues are not addressed, they will make future recovery efforts more dangerous and more ineffective than they need be. That reality means remedies must be rapidly applied.

The best means of doing so is a royal commission of inquiry, such as was set up after Ballantynes' fire. It led to radical reform of firefighting and fire prevention, and a similar inquiry into the response to the earthquake could produce similarly significant changes. A royal commission would be independent of inter-service rivalry, have an overall perspective and allow citizens who experienced the earthquakes to provide their invaluable knowledge of what went wrong and what went right.

They, together with all New Zealanders, need emergency services fit for the task.

- The Press

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