25 Apr 2009

Coroner critical of police-led search for drowned teen

6:06 am on 25 April 2009

A coroner's report into the death of a teenager who drowned off the Wanganui Coast has criticised errors in the police-led search and recommended all recreational boaties carry emergency locator beacons.

Geoffrey Hampton, 19, died in his father's arms after more than 12 hours in the water in February 2008

His father Alan Hampton and a family friend on the fishing trip were later rescued, but there was widespread criticism about the search operation.

The report by coroner Carla Nagara, released on Friday, found aspects of the police-led search were inadequate.

It said there was a lack of experience of marine searches at night, not enough police personnel to help, and distrustful relationships between the agencies.

The coroner made six recommendations, including that it be compulsory for recreational boaties to carry emergency locator beacons, that police improve systems for staffing rescue operations and information about correct lifejacket use be reviewed.

The inquest heard that rescue teams could have reached the boat earlier if a beacon had been carried and activated.

Alan Hampton told Nine to Noon on Friday not all agencies involved in the search have made improvements.

"Fundamentally I haven't seen anything yet that suggests to me that the police have made any changes, certainly within that Wanganui area, that would give me any confidence that things have changed."

Mr Hampton says the coroner's report does not answer all the family's questions.

Improvements being made

Central District police commander Russell Gibson says improvements have been made, including the appointment of a full time district co-ordinator to oversee search and rescue activities.

"We have undertaken a huge investment of training in both marine and land-based search and rescue operations. We've also invested in developing the relationships with our key partners, the Rescue Co-ordination Centre and also the Coastguard."

Mr Gibson says staffing arrangements to ensure trained volunteers are available are being looked at.

Search and rescue authorities say making it compulsory for boaties to carry emergency locator beacons could be a challenge.

The Rescue Co-ordination Centre's group manager, Nigel Clifford, supports the idea, but thinks it will take a lot of work to make it a binding rule.

There are about 450,000 pleasure craft in New Zealand and the beacons cost about $800.

Maritime New Zealand says it is implementing recommendations made in its own review, which included ensuring boaties are better informed about lifejacket use and distress signals.

The Coastguard says it will review its training for boaties to ensure they understand how the trip reporting system works after the coroner's report highlighted there was no set practice throughout New Zealand.

The chief executive of the Coastguard, Bruce Reid, says some maritime radio operators will follow up if boaties fail to return by the time their trip report indicated, but the practice is not standard.

Mr Reid says if a boat is reported missing, and a trip report has been filed, it gives searchers an idea of where to start looking.

The MP for Whanganui Chester Borrows says it is clear police did not keep the family informed of developments and and a police liason officer should have been assigned.