Procedure should not beat principle

Michael Field at Stuff reports:

Prime Minister John Key has spoken to his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu after claims an Israeli search and rescue team was refused entry to Christchurch’s inner-city cordon.

Earlier today, the Government rejected Israeli media reports that Wellington refused Israel’s offer to send a search and rescue team to Christchurch after the earthquake.

Key said this afternoon the Israelis were not part of a United Nations-accredited team.

The Government had received a wide range of offers of help but had not accepted all of them because there were enough people on the ground, he said. …

“I understand that private search experts retained by families of missing Israeli citizens presented to Civil Defence officials in Christchurch.

“Civil Defence requirements for (Urban Search and Rescue) teams were that they be self-deploying, self-sustaining and United Nations-accredited.

“Civil Defence officials therefore declined the private Israeli offer, and other similar non-accredited offers of assistance.”

Civil Defence have an incredibly hard job coping with a disaster of this magnitude, and generally are doing very well. However in this case, I believe it is highly regrettable that procedure won out over common sense.

As a disclosure, one of the dead Israelis is a close friend of one of my good Israeli friends – in fact the person who hosted me in Israel in November 2009. He approached me for assistance in getting a favourable decision made on getting the Israeli team admitted, and I put them in touch with the appropriate MFAT officials. I have no criticism of the MFAT officials who were very responsive and helpful, my criticism is of the ultimate decision maker, which I presume is someone in Civil Defence.

Now it is correct that this search and rescue team did not meet the official criteria of being an official Governmental team, accredited with the United Nations. It was a private team (however the Israeli Government was in full support of the team being admitted). So in terms of ticking all the boxes, it didn’t qualify.

But I think some common sense would have been useful. I would have asked the question – what’s the worst thing that could happen by allowing this team to join the other s&r teams, and consider the emotional damage caused by excluding a team that is already in Christchurch and ready and waiting to go into action.

The team was commissioned by one of the fathers of the (now known to be dead) Israelis. He paid for them at his own expense and rushed them out to NZ to maximise any chance of his son being found alive. It might only be a small fractional improvement in the odds, but it was better than doing nothing. It gave comfort that they were doing everything they possibly could. And they were accepting that this would not be some rogue team only searching for the Israelis – they were totally happy to work where-ever directed to by Civil Defence.

Now one reason you might want to exclude a private team, is if they were, well basically amateurs, who might be a risk to themselves or others.  I’ve seen the backgrounds to the team members, and they are the exact opposite of amateurs – we’ve talking team members who have huge experience in search and rescue in earthquakes, and other situations.

The team leader was Hilik Magnus. Here is an extract from his website:

Over the last 17 years, Hilik has led numerous search parties, locating and rescuing hundreds of travelers of different nationalities, mainly in the Far East and South America. Over the years, he has built a unique network of contacts with authorities and private organizations across the world, advised foreign governments and security forces, and assisted thousands of families in receiving information regarding their loved ones. In Israel he has earned the unofficial title of “the national rescuer.”

Hilik has trained a team of rescue experts with specialist skills on constant alert and still leads most of the search parties himself. Over the years, the company’s capabilities expanded to include legal aid, hostage negotiation and disaster relief. Magnus teams were among the first international rescue groups to reach the stricken coastal areas of Thailand following the 2004 Tsunami disaster and in recent years are at the forefront of intervention and rehabilitation in cases of substance abuse crises overseas.

Sounds rather capable I have to say. There are numerous testaments to their effectiveness, including a recent one from NZ, as reported in 2008 in the NZ Herald:

Tas, a 26-year-old media studies student, was here to help with the search for his missing sister, 35-year-old Liat Okin, who was last seen alive leaving a hut on the Routeburn Track late on the morning of March 26, in jeans and sneakers.

Joining the search was crack Israeli search-and-rescue expert Hilik Magnus, hired by Okin’s family to continue with a private search after he had finished with the official police search.

When that search was suspended on April 22, Magnus led the private search in what was at times inhospitable terrain surrounding the Routeburn Track. …

And they found the body, which the official s&r had failed to do. But even then, he was not big noting:

He is emphatic in his praise for the police, DOC and local volunteers who formed part of his search team. “I have never seen a team working as well as the local team. We have a lot to learn from them, how well organised and managed they were.”

Local support was outstanding, he says. The team, from six to 16-strong, at times included police search-and-rescue members, a dog handler and locals with knowledge of the Routeburn area, which straddles Fiordland and Mt Aspiring National Parks.

Even though the area where the body was found had been covered in the police search, police efforts, led by Senior Sergeant John Fookes, should not be undervalued says Magnus. “It’s a very cruel job: you are judged only by the results. People should understand that finding at the end, it is the outcome of a lot of invested days of search and you need a bit of luck. Because if we passed two metres, or half a metre away, we haven’t got the view of this backpack and we would have missed it.”

I think admitting the team lead by Magnus should have been a no brainer.

They were in Christchurch within a couple of days of the quake, but were never allowed to assist because they are not on some UN approved list. I really think it was a bad decision.

The young Israelis killed in the quake died instantly, it transpires, and letting the private team in would not have changed that. But it would have given greater comfort and solace to a worried and grieving family on the other side of the world that they had done everything they could to find their son. Instead they spend several days of battling bureaucracy, and having to even get the Israeli Prime Minister involved in their efforts.

I hope in future disasters, consideration is given to a more flexible approach. If there is to be a Commission of Inquiry into the earthquake, this is one (of many) issues that could be considered.

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