19 Feb 2016

Fire Service to make changes as tribute to quake victims

8:51 am on 19 February 2016

Five years on from the February 2011 earthquake, the Fire Service says the best tribute it can make to those who lost their lives is to be honest about where it can improve and make changes.

Urban Search and Rescue teams from New Zealand and China work on the wreckage of the CTV building.

Urban Search and Rescue teams from New Zealand and China work on the wreckage of the CTV building. Photo: AFP

On 22 February, 185 people died as a result of the earthquake, including eight people who survived the initial quake but later died as the CTV building was overtaken by fire and more of the building collapsed.

Queens Counsel Nigel Hampton represented the families of those eight people.

Nigel Hampton

Nigel Hampton Photo: Otago Daily Times

Some of those trapped in the CTV building phoned family members while stuck inside the building, attempting to guide them to where they were trapped, only to die before help could reach them.

Mr Hampton said there had been a lot of focus on the many great things the Fire Service and members of the public did on that day, but not enough examination of the failings.

"I accept immediately, with no reservations at all, heroic things were being doing done on the ground, extraordinary things were being done on the ground, and it is really a large red herring that, it is a way of diverting attention away from what I see as the real problem, and it's that problem which I think has never been dealt with adequately."

Mr Hampton said the biggest problem on 22 February was that the 13 senior fire service managers in Christchurch on the day were wholly unprepared to take on the disaster which unfolded in front of them.

"The management showed no desire to bring any order to chaos.

"To say it is overwhelming, is to say that either you are untrained, or that all that training you have had has been to no effect. You are trained for these situations. This is what you are there for. To throw up your hands and say it is too much, it's overwhelming, is just unacceptable."

A Royal Commission looked into the cause of the building collapses, but not at the response of the emergency services.

A coroner's inquiry into the eight deaths in the CTV building criticised many aspects of the Fire Service's response, including the decision not to send any of the 13 managers in the city to the CTV site.

However, the coroner Gordon Matenga said he was not satisfied that the search and rescue operation contributed to the deaths.

Nigel Hampton said there should have been a Royal Commission into the performance of the Fire Service, and a complete re-organisation of its structure, but he said that opportunity had been missed.

President of the Southern branch of the Professional Fire Fighters Union Michael Balmer said the February quake was a huge wake up call for the fire service.

He said prior to the quake the organisation had lost sight of the fact that its primary role is emergency response.

"Under the previous national commander, there was a bit of a mindset that senior fire service management were just that," said Mr Balmer.

"They were managers. Their rank was area manager, there was region manager, and their role was to manage. There was even some people appointed from outside the organisation to these roles. They'd never progressed up through the ranks. I mean, I can read a book about World War II, but that doesn't make me a general."

Mr Balmer said across the country planning for a disaster was now better and more extensive. He said there was also better co-ordination between the Fire Service and their Urban Search and Rescue specialists.

He said in Canterbury the message to be prepared had well and truly sunk in, but he was not sure about elsewhere.

"Am I confident that the lessons have been learnt? Confident is a big word.

"We are coming up to five years now and there probably hasn't been a week gone by when I don't think about some aspect of the earthquakes. If there was another major event I hope I would perform better, but it's been a hard school that's for sure."

He said the main lesson he hoped that everyone around the country took away was that they could not become complacent and that another disaster could strike at any time.

Fire Service deputy national commander Paul McGill said the best tribute the service could make to those who lost their lives in the quake was to be honest about where they could improve and make changes.

He said a major initiative had been to develop a new national response plan, which he said encapsulates all the learnings from the event.

"We've delivered extensive incident management training for all our officers across the country, both at a tactical and strategic level.

"We've established a network of 20 co-ordination centres especially equipped and designed to cater for major events, and we've made significant improvements to our Urban Search and Rescue capability."

The police's lead representative at the Christchurch Response Centre during the quakes was Inspector John Pine.

He said the scale of the disaster did come as a shock to the police.

Mr Pine said a major lesson for the police was to clarify who was in charge at key locations, such as the CTV building.

"Going into it, we were very much as a police service quite confident that we had everything under control, and when you get to an activity of this scale you certainly realise you really need partners. If there is one thing to come out of it, it is that we have certainly strengthened those partnerships."

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