Review faults management of CTV rescue effort

8:46 pm on 5 October 2012

A new investigation has found the management of the rescue effort at the CTV building, in which 115 died in the February 2011 earthquake, was not good enough.

The criticism is included in an independent review of the overall response to the quake by emergency services and authorities throughout Christchurch.

The 6.3-magnitude quake on 22 February severely damaged much of central Christchurch and killed 185 people.

The review is mostly favourable of the emergency response, but critical of the Fire Service for not putting one person in charge of the overall operation at the CTV building. The responsibility was instead split between the Fire Service and police.

Maan Alkaisi, who lost his wife in the collapse, witnessed much of the rescue effort from nearby Latimer Square.

"Lack of coordination or leadership was evident at the time, but I'm not blaming anybody because the problem was overwhelming at the time."

However, he believes emergency services need to be better prepared in any future disasters.

Nigel Hamton, QC, the lawyer acting for Alec Cvetanov whose wife also died in the collapse, believes having one person in charge overall would have made a significant difference.

"If you've got one person in charge of the whole site, they can stand back and see what's going on.

"There's clear lines of reporting, clear lines of liaison, there are clear lines of passing down to those on the ground what's required to be done and passing back information to the controller what they're finding and what resources they need."

The Fire Service's acting national commander, Paul McGill, admits there was a lack of senior staff - but they did their best with what they had.

"There were only three executive officers on duty at the time, which is an adequate resource for normal operations for the Fire Service. There were a couple of other officers on leave and one was in Wellington at the time.

"So they had a very difficult challenge when the major earthquake occurred about where they could best place themselves to best effect.

Mr McGill, says lessons have been learned. "What we would look to do in future is to make really clear who was in overall control of the site.

"There are broader incident management requirements on a site around coordinating, controlling, looking at the general environment - and that's where you have the advantage of having someone who is clearly in charge of the overall site."

Police reject criticism

However Nick Perry, assistant commissioner for police operations, rejects the review's criticisms and notes the authors did not interview the officers in control of the operation on the day.

"It's all very well and good to sit back in the cold light of day and with hindsight and say, 'This should have been done and that should have been done'.

"Well, if it had've been just a one-off building collapse, I'm sure that it probably would have been handled somewhat differently - but when you're having to deal with about 140 of them, it's all hands at the wheel and you basically get on and do the job."

The rescue operation will be looked at again during an inquest into the CTV collapse at the end of October.

Local authorities criticised

The review also identified what it called a "dysfunctional relationship" between the Christchurch City Council and local Civil Defence Emergency Group on the day of the February quake, saying people and property were put at risk.

Christchurch mayor Bob Parker says that issue related to one person and was dealt with at the time, but the overall response by services was found to be extremely good.

The review recommends that local authorities lose the power to control responses to an earthquake.

However, Chris Tremain, the Minister of Civil Defence and Emergency Management, says this will not be adopted, as emergencies are best dealt with locally.

Civil Defence director John Hamilton also does not agree with the recommendation, saying councils have a role to play setting up links between community groups and local Civil Defence.

Mr Hamilton says if communication between the two groups is weak, it can be hard to monitor the situation and determine if there are any emergency requirements as quick as possible.