Thanks to reader Jo Blogs for this link… (for background info read this post):
“Those nearby, and back on the mainland, reacted instantly and humanely. They ran, flew, and sped by boat toward the danger. Politicians and officials have praised these as “first responders”. Their use of the phrase was a dishonest attempt to hide that these people were not official first responders, but ordinary people. “
OPINION: The tragedy at Whakaari/White Island last week exposed a growing institutional cowardice among emergency services, particularly police, that affects their usefulness to citizens.
When the eruption occurred, and the emergency calls started on Monday afternoon, police and rescue services decided that they would not head to the island to help.
It was left to my fellow citizens to respond with māia (courage). Those nearby, and back on the mainland, reacted instantly and humanely. They ran, flew, and sped by boat toward the danger.
Politicians and officials have praised these as “first responders”. Their use of the phrase was a dishonest attempt to hide that these people were not official first responders, but ordinary people.
Mark Law, a helicopter pilot with Kāhu NZ, heard that emergency services were not heading to White Island. He and others, including Tim Barrow and colleagues from Volcanic Air, flew out and landed on the island. They rescued some survivors – particularly members of the group that had been closest to the erupting crater.
Law hauntingly describes the island soon after the eruption as “silent”. The air permeated by gases and ground dusted with ash. Survivors, their burns awful to comprehend, weakly called for help. Our untrained heroes were there for them. Our trained rescue services were not.
When police finally got their act together, they used their authority to prevent further private rescues or body recovery.
Let’s assume that, as some people seem to be arguing, it is OK for state professionals, trained for, paid for, and possibly even keen to respond to emergencies, to refuse to attend one.
It does not follow that they can prevent others from assessing risk differently and taking it. But I believe that the official cordon was a kind of post-incident justification for managerial cowardice.
Police also used an official flight over the island, and brief landing on it, to provide “evidence” justifying their decisions. These flights usefully allowed officials to claim there were no signs of life, and that conditions on the island were not conducive to a rescue.
The flight did not see all the bodies. The helicopter crew that landed and concluded unsafe conditions was clearly wrong, as brave people had already landed and effected a rescue.
The state made a big deal about the risk in recovery of bodies. GNS estimated the risk of a second eruption at higher than 50 per cent. Police used that percentage, and the GNS risk zone maps, to justify the decision not to recover bodies. Neither of these are go/don’t go assessments. The complexity of the volcano, and the uncertainty built into those numbers, means they are not thresholds for action.
Despite the risk and continued “level 2” status, daring Defence Force teams finally undertook a speedy recovery of most of the bodies. Then the police claimed the same conditions meant there could be no further recovery action.
The GNS risk measurements were a prop. The decision to go in was based on very human factors: personnel who are ready to volunteer, families who are waiting, international attention, and politicians not enjoying the public pressure.
When, in 2012, I criticised police prevention of rescue of workers at Pike River mine, I blamed the insidious creep of “managerialism”; a preference for process over action. Cultural trends, such as fixations on health and safety, infect management systems with an endless loop of passing responsibility.
The response to the White Island tragedy is a stark insight into the continued creep of managerialism. It undermines the ability of state services to help citizens, but empowers it to infantilise us.
We’re discouraged from acting on our own, and forced to bow to experts. Yet systems and fancy talk prevent experts taking substantive action for fear of career, safety, or arbitrary consequences for taking the “wrong” action. In these environments, there are no career prospects for heroes.
What White Island tells you is that, when disaster occurs, you really are on your own. It may be time for citizens to make private provision for security and emergency; collectively or commercially purchasing or organising policing, rescue and fire response.
The state’s sophistication has cemented inaction. The police and government are turning cowardice into a professional duty. I see no value in paying for it through my taxes. It certainly makes them unfit to tell us what to do.
As citizens, it is down to us to help ourselves. To paraphrase our brave pilot Mark Law: “We must take care of our own business.”
* Mark Blackham is a director of Wellington-based BlacklandPR.