Police talked about doing an emergency exercise at Whakaari for six years before the deadly 2019 eruption but it never happened.
They also faced difficulties getting a shelter set up at the island with first-aid stores, because the Department of Internal Affairs didn't want "to take responsibility", meeting minutes obtained by NZME through an Official Information Act request show.
Twenty-one people died from burns and blast injuries and more than a dozen others were critically injured, after hot ash, rock and acidic gases burst from the Whakaari / White Island crater last year.
The eruption at 2.11pm on December 9 sent a plume 3.7km into the air.
New Zealand Police was the lead agency for the search and rescue response and it has been heavily criticised in the months since, because police and rescue helicopter services initially deemed it too dangerous to set foot on the island, 50km from shore.
Instead, private helicopter pilots who regularly took tourists on to the island, and a White Island Tours boat brought survivors back to land in the first two hours.
Meeting minutes show that at all 24 Eastern Bay of Plenty Emergency Services Coordinating Committee meetings between December 2013 and November 2019, four weeks before the eruption, first responders highlighted the need to go to Whakaari and practice a mass rescue.
All of the meetings were chaired by and led by Whakatāne police.
NZME requested the minutes in May but both police and Bay of Plenty Civil Defence and Emergency Management refused to provide them.
Six months later, the police have now released the minutes and identified organisations at the meetings, after two Ombudsman's investigations and consultation with the Chief Coroner.
The records show that in December 2013, GNS Science did a presentation about Whakaari for members of the committee.
Attendees then did a training exercise, verbally running through what a response to a volcanic eruption at Whakaari would involve and how rescuers could be put at risk.
They noted helicopter and boat access would be "limited" until ash cleared, and would rely on suitable weather and conditions at sea.
They also noted rescue boats would take an hour to get to the island from Whakatāne and helicopters would take half an hour when coming from Rotorua or Tauranga.
"Transfer of patients by boat can be difficult" and "patients would not be able to be moved on stretchers across the terrain very easily", the minutes said.
Attendees also discussed putting an emergency shelter permanently on the island and concluded: "A designated volcanic response crew should be established and a training exercise should be carried out to include SAR [Search and Rescue], Coastguard and tour operators."
By the March 2015 committee meeting, Whakatāne police had completed a draft White Island Emergency Plan but a Search and Rescue representative at the meeting said "the time delay in getting shelters on White Island is not acceptable".
"Tourists and rescuers need a shelter."
"A plan should be prepared for the sake of tourists and SAR [Search and Rescue] so that there is an interim solution ... This issue needs to be pushed through as soon as possible," the minutes said.
When the committee again discussed delays in getting an emergency shelter on the island in August 2015, another civil defence representative said staff were "still working on whether the DIA [Department of Internal Affairs] or the regional council should be in charge of this".
He said the DIA was "supposed to take responsibility" for the island but wanted to "give it back" to regional civil defence, so the need for a shelter was "not likely to be resolved in the near future".
By August 2016, a container had been flown to the island for contingency stores and shelter.
But there was still "concern" about risk management plans, the committee was told in November 2016.
In August 2017 the Local Government Minister at the time, Jacqui Dean, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Bay of Plenty Civil Defence and Emergency Management to clarify their responsibilities for the island.
Four months later, at the Eastern Bay of Plenty Emergency Services Coordinating Committee's December 2017 meeting, attendees discussed exercising the police's White Island Emergency Rescue Plan, with White Island business owners.
This need for a Whakaari rescue exercise remained an "action point" at meetings through 2018 and 2019.
The last of these meetings, discussing the need for a rescue simulation, was on November 14, 2019 - three days before Whakaari's alert level was raised from 1 to 2.
But it still had not taken place when the volcano blew three weeks later, on December 9, 2019.
Nor had a designated volcanic response crew been established.
Police, via their media liaisons, refused to answer questions about the committee minutes, stating another Official Information Act request was necessary.
When a request was submitted, the police then said the information could not be released as it would be part of the coronial inquest.
NZME has made a further complaint to the Ombudsman's office about this.
The Department of Internal Affairs could not answer questions because staff were not invited to the meetings, a spokesperson said.
Bay of Plenty Civil Defence and Emergency Management could not comment while investigations continued, a spokeswoman said.
Police are investigating the deaths on behalf of the Coroner and WorkSafe are investigating whether tourist operators breached health and safety rules.
What else we know
In April NZME revealed New Zealand academics had referenced seven life-threatening "near misses" at Whakaari in the years leading up to December's devastating eruption.
They published mounting evidence of the "severe" risks at the submarine volcano in 2018.
In June, NZME spoke to a former police sergeant and Whakatāne district councillor Russell Orr, who said he raised concerns about White Island tourism years before December's eruption.
Emails from 2013 show he also called on council staff to make sure the risks were being "conveyed fully" to tourists, fishermen and visitors to the island.
Orr also requested: "If the risk is 'unacceptable' that business and economic issues do not sway us from making the obvious decisions needed to protect lives."
In August, NZME spoke to law experts calling for a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the eruption.
Professor John Hopkins, director of the Institute for Law Emergencies and Disasters at the University of Canterbury, suspected an inquiry would expose "much bigger issues" regarding the management of disaster risks and adventure tourism in New Zealand, with "lots of different agencies doing things and not necessarily doing them well together".
Last month, an NZME investigation that obtained documents from the Department of Internal Affairs showed lives would have been saved if Department of Conservation protocols were in place at Whakaari last year.
Volcanoes at level 2 are deemed too dangerous to allow tourist access under DoC rules used at Tongariro National Park, however, DoC does not control access to Whakaari.
In 2014, the Herald on Sunday also spoke to GNS scientist Brad Scott who said GNS staff had had "terse discussions" with tour operators who had landed visitors on the island in conditions that made volcanologists "anxious".
"We don't visit but they still go," he said.