High-tech cameras designed to probe collapsed buildings and search for signs of life failed on February 22 and have since been replaced, an inquest was told today.

Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) bosses had to buy "inferior" cheap cameras after budget restraints.

They knew the cameras were prone to going on the blink and made several attempts over a two-year period to try and fix them.

But when they were called into action to try and find survivors inside the collapsed six-storey CTV Building in Christchurch after the killer earthquake last year, they failed to work because of connection issues.


USAR rescuers were frustrated that the critical kit let them down and potentially cost lives.

The cameras have now been phased out by USAR officials and replaced with state-of-the-art cameras worth $27,000 each.

USAR team leader Bryce Coneybeer made the revelations today at an inquest in Christchurch into the deaths of eight students at King's Education School for English Language on the concrete tower's third floor.

Dr Tamara Cvetanova of Serbia, Cheng Mai of China, Japan's Rika Hyuga, and Jessie Redouble, Emmabelle Anoba, Ezra Medalle, Reah Sumalpong and Mary Amantillo, all from the Philippines, used cellphones to alert friends, family and emergency services that they had survived the collapse, but they were not found alive.

A critical part of the coroner's inquest, which is in its third and final week, has been a lack of a central command post at the CTV disaster site, where 115 people died.

Under cross-examination by Richard Raymond, counsel assisting the coroner, Mr Coneybeer accepted that a central post would've given an "overarching understanding" of the site.

Rescuers gave evidence that they didn't know key rescue gear, like DelSar listening equipment or concrete cutting gear had been on site but not made available to them.

An overall commander could've helped logistically to run the rescue operation.

Since the disaster there had been "major changes" in how the New Zealand Fire Service (NZFS) relates to USAR.

"Why's that?", asked Coroner Gordon Matenga.

Mr Coneybeer, a senior fire station officer in Wanganui and experienced rescuer, explained that there had been a lot of debate since the Christchurch deployment, and steps were being taken to formally attach more fire managers to USAR to improve relations and knowledge of USAR operating principles.

"At the time, there were a lot of managers that weren't particularly USAR savvy," he said.

USAR is a crack unit that specialises in finding and recovering people in dangerous situations.

It comprise firefighters, dog handlers, communications experts, engineers, doctors and paramedics, with three task forces across New Zealand, being based in Christchurch, Palmerston North and Auckland.

At the end of Mr Coneybeer's evidence, Coroner Matenga suggested that NZFS looked down at USAR as being a "poor cousin".

"To be fair, it was seen by quite a few as a resource that would never be used," Mr Coneybeer said.

A lack of knowledge and understanding of USAR by some fire service managers resulted in "a perception that it was not particularly necessary", he said.

But since February 22, the NZFS national commander has "made it one of his priorities" to continue the development of USAR and enhance training for "the people on the red trucks".

The inquest continues.