Veteran Taupō search and rescue pilot John Funnell, MBE, has vented frustration that medical staff were not initially allowed to go to Whakaari/White Island to assist with the transfer of badly burned patients.
However St John New Zealand says that risk assessments immediately after the eruption correctly identified the need to stage helicopters at Whakatāne while the safety of responders was established.
Mr Funnell, who has more than 20,000 hours flying experience, was in a fixed-wing aircraft in the area at the time and picked up on the volcanic eruption and crisis as it unfolded. There was no direct communication possible between the island and the mainland, and Mr Funnell took on a communication role while flying in tight circles.
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With no cell phone coverage, Mr Funnell contacted Air Traffic Control Tauranga who contacted police and ambulance services and relayed information between them and Mr Funnell, who in turn passed it to the pilots and crew on the island.
The St John Air Desk, responsible for managing medical emergency first responders, mobilised rescue helicopters from around the North Island, who flew out after the initial three helicopters from Whakatāne and Rotorua responded. Mr Funnell says at first the helicopters were directed to Whakatāne which was futile as the requirement was at White Island.
"The Air Desk controlling rescue helicopters told the [rescue] helicopters not to take medical staff to White Island. They [medical staff] were to go to Whakatāne Airport.
"It was only my protesting loudly and raising the issue with the Wellington Rescue Coordination Centre in Wellington that medical staff were sent to White Island. But by then the survivors were off the island."
Mr Funnell says once the first two helicopters were full, there were still critically injured people on the island, with two more helicopters on their way. However more medical staff were required. He says by the time the Air Desk authorised the Westpac rescue helicopter from Auckland to land on the island, it was too late and the last survivors were already on their way to Whakatāne. A press release from St John on December 9 states they dispatched seven helicopters to the island with paramedics on board.
"At least one person died in a later helicopter on the way back," Mr Funnell says. "Maybe they were going to die anyway. Had there been a more timely response from the Air Desk, had there been a medic on board, maybe that person would have lived."
While there were people alive on the island, Mr Funnell says no authority would have stopped the initial helicopter pilots who responded.
"Once the people who were alive were off the island, it was time to pause, to reassess. At this stage the police shut down the body recovery operation."
With the benefit of hindsight, he says they could have gone back to retrieve the bodies of tour guide Hayden Marshall-Inman, 40, and Australian tourist Winona Langford, 17.
"To be shut down for several days, local operators have the local knowledge. We should have gone back."
The veteran pilot says the entire rescue operation was a major exercise, and he would have expected a debriefing.
"There hasn't been a debrief. What would we [as pilots and first responders] do when it happens again? There are lots of things to learn from," said Mr Funnell.
On behalf of the Ministry of Health, the National Ambulance Sector Office (NASO) operates the ambulance service. A spokesperson from the Ministry said they recognised the efforts of all first responders in rapid action following the Whakaari/White Island eruption.
"Debrief and consultation around the response is ongoing. Any system improvements and shared learnings will be seriously considered by NASO."
St John New Zealand is the contractor to the Ministry of Health and NASO, and established the Air Desk in 2016 to co-ordinate the national ambulance air response across New Zealand. St John director of clinical operations Dan Ohs said the Air Desk demonstrated its value during the Whakaari/White Island emergency operation.
Mr Ohs said following the eruption, St John has held a debrief about the air response.
"[It was] determined that risk assessments undertaken immediately following the eruption correctly identified the need to stage helicopters at Whakatāne while the safety of responders was established."
"An incident of this magnitude and nature is unique and will always provide learnings to those involved in the response while providing an opportunity to evaluate and modify procedures for future events."
Mr Ohs said a sector-wide review is underway and it would not be appropriate to comment further ahead of those findings.
Mr Funnell says WorkSafe has driven the health and safety pendulum too far in New Zealand.
"Rather than say, "What might be the risk?", people in authority default to "No, don't go".
He says it's difficult for a person in authority but not on the scene to make an assessment.
"One of the options [for the Air Desk] was to say 'you are there, you need to make a risk assessment for yourselves'. And that is what the two pilots and I did. Everyone knew the potential was for it [Whakaari] to blow up at any time."