Only a few organisations involved in immediate response to Whakaari/White Island had plan for eruption

Many of the agencies that responded to the Whakaari/White Island tragedy didn’t have a specific plan for dealing with an eruption on the island, 1 NEWS can reveal.

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Emergency services refused to go to the island that day, and families struggled to find out when that would happen. Source: 1 NEWS

The eruption on December 9th last year at the famously active volcano has killed 22 people. Documents released under the Official Information Act show many agencies that responded, including DHBs and other government agencies, relied on general emergency plans.

Victims with life-threatening burns were sent to nearby hospitals, including Whakatāne Hospital, Waikato Hospital, Middlemore Hospital, where the National Burn Centre is located, but none of those agencies had a specific plan for if the volcano blew.

The National Emergency Management Agency (formerly known as Civil Defence) also didn’t have a specific plan, and neither did the NZ Defence Force.

Emergency Management Bay of Plenty did have a plan, but it was a draft one. In response to the 1 NEWS query, the Bay of Plenty Regional Council said the "EMPOB Response Plan that was in effect the day of the eruption is not a final or approved Response Plan”.

“However, it was utilised because it was in its final phase of internal review and considered an 'operational draft.'"

The plan also “assumes that other key agencies have their own response plan and/or management processes”.

The NZ Police initially declined 1 NEWS’ request for information, saying plans for dealing with any eruption at Whakaari/White Island, “do not exist”.

But this week, police unearthed a 42-page White Island Eruption Response Plan after “subsequent enquiries” and said it was used on the day of the eruption.

“Staff who led the emergency response on the day had access to the plan and were familiar with it,” a police spokesperson said.

“The Plan was part of the tool kit used by the response team managing the rescue and recovery activities.”

The police response plan states the mission of NZ Police is “to lead a Search and Rescue (SAR) response to any volcanic event on White Island (Whakaari) when there is a need to safely remove any persons present who are not able to be evacuated by Tour Operators”.

But while 12 victims were rescued by private helicopter pilots, police never went to the island. Six bodies were recovered by Defence Force personnel on December 13th, four days after the eruption.

Private chopper pilot Mark Law, who rescued five of the victims, says the lack of planning between agencies was obvious.

“The disappointing part was it felt like it got disjointed in the senior management of a lot of departments. That's where some breakdown and miscommunications, lack of planning, that sort of commitment fell away.

“We cannot afford to sit around and think about the risks of others, that’s the greatest shift required in emergency services and emergency planning.”

University of Canterbury disaster risk and resilience professor Tom Wilson says it’s not reasonable to expect every agency to have a specific plan for an event like the Whakaari eruption.

“If you're developing a plan for every different possible scenario you'd never be able to do it because there's so many different permutations of floods, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes tsunami, the list goes on."

“What NZ Emergency Management are trying to do is a high degree of planning, but a lot of it can be quite generic. What they're trying to produce is a capability and capacity that can respond to whatever crisis or disaster occurs in an efficient, timely and effective way.”

But there is long-term, multi-agency planning and research in place for an eruption on the Central Plateau, and in Auckland.

There are 21 agencies, including NEMA, NZ Police, Fire and Emergency New Zealand and the NZ Defence Force, that make up the Central Plateau Volcanic Advisory Group, which covers the area surrounding volcanoes Mount Ruapehu, Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Tongariro.

The Ruapehu District Council says the group “regularly reviews” its plans and procedures for Mt Ruapehu, and engaged an external consultant to undertake a full review last year.

Professor Jan Lindsay runs Auckland’s DEVORA programme, where researchers work with emergency management authorities to plan for an eruption on Auckland’s volcanic field.

She says there’s “certainly scope for a more co-ordinated approach and to have better plans in place” at Whakaari.

“We have had workshops with NZ Police and Fire and Emergency NZ and planned who would be doing what in the event of future eruption [in Auckland] so we do sit down with them and discuss those things."

“There has been a lot of research undertaken at Whakaari, I think the communication may not have been as good as it could have been if there were such a co-ordinated research effort that was including stakeholders.”

What the agencies say:

The NZ Police says the rationale for not following its mission to recover victims on Whakaari/White Island was “well covered at the time”.

“The environment on the island had changed after the eruption, police were committed to getting onto the island as quickly as possible and were working with partner agencies to ensure we did so safely,” a spokesperson said.

Bay of Plenty DHB emergency planning coordinator Josephine Peters says although the DHB will review its plans, she doesn’t believe Whakatāne Hospital’s response could have been improved by having a specific eruption plan.

“The standard of care received by the patients whilst at Whakatāne Hospital following the Whakaari eruption was nothing short of exceptional….The reality is that no Whakaari-specific plan could have improved the care which was given on 9 December last year.”

A Counties Manukau health spokesperson says the National Burn Centre has a National Burn Disaster Plan which was formulated in 2011, in conjunction with the Ministry of Health.

“While the specific instance of a volcanic eruption was not considered in that plan, the general principles were well established and understood. The Plan is reviewed on an annual basis and will continue to be modified in the light of experience, including what was learnt from this incident.”

The National Emergency Management Agency, which has been charged by WorkSafe over the eruption, said it couldn’t comment about its planning for an eruption on the island.

“NEMA works closely with Civil Defence Emergency Management Groups and other partners to support planning and response across a range of potential hazards at all times.

In regards to Whakaari, as this matter is subject to legal proceedings, it would not be appropriate to comment further until this process has run its course.”