2 Apr 2012

Police chain of command questioned at Pike hearing

5:06 pm on 2 April 2012

Police faced tough questions at the Pike River Royal Commission on Monday about the extent to which lessons have been learned about their response to the disaster.

Twenty-nine men died at the Pike River Coal mine on the West Coast following a series of explosions that began on 19 November 2010.

The Royal Commission is in its final few days during which policy aspects of the incident will be dealt with by all of the major players who have so far contributed to the hearings.

West Coast Tasman District Commander Superintendent Gary Knowles was the incident controller at the time of the explosions.

As such, he was supposed to have the final say on crucial decisions including whether a rescue team should enter the mine. Instead, that decision was left up to police hierarchy in Wellington.

Police are recommending that the chain of command be retained in future incidents, saying life and death decisions should not be left up to the incident controller on the ground.

Pike River Commissioner David Henry asked if that was appropriate, given that all the crucial decisions in such an incident are life or death decisions, and questioned whether this procedure would be fast enough.

"What you're saying, if I understand you right is, that any future incident of this nature with an underground coal mine that the incident controller will not be in charge of the decision that really counts."

Mr Henry also wanted to know why police did not think that the person in charge of the rescue operation on the ground was the most appropriate person to make life and death decisions.

Another commissioner, Stewart Bell, was also unhappy with police recommendations and wanted to know why the Mines Rescue Service was not involved in a review of the multi-agency incident response system, which is under way.

The Mines Rescue Service told the Pike River Royal Commission on Monday its crews were hampered by the bureaucracy surrounding the rescue effort.

The police recommendations highlight the fact that the Pike River disaster is the first time a new multi-agency emergency response system was put into action.

The lawyer representing the Mines Rescue Service says having more than one person in charge of the rescue operation made it difficult for quick and informed decisions to be made and he could not understand why police want this system retained.

The service is recommending that the management of a mine should have a role in helping to co-ordinate rescue efforts in future because it is always the group with the best knowledge of a mine's workings.