The debate may continue to rage over the handling of Auckland’s state of emergency declaration, but the timeliness of emergency services’ response to the recent flooding event is largely unchallenged.
What has yet to be widely acknowledged, however, is that it wasn’t just Auckland’s first responders who leapt into action when the supercity threatened to be submerged on Friday, January 27.
Fire and Emergency [Fenz] personnel from around New Zealand – including Wairarapa – flew directly into the epicentre of the emergency coordination effort within 24 hours of the event kicking off.
Fenz Wairarapa group manager and assistant commander Craig Cottrill told the Times-Age that a request to deploy to Auckland for at least five days came in shortly after the state of emergency was declared on Friday night.
“On Saturday morning, the national coordination centre confirmed there was space on the air force flight to Auckland at 11.30am. We packed our bags and went off,” he recalled.
Cottrill found himself on an air force Hercules alongside Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and Minister for Emergency Management Kieran McAnulty.
After landing at Whenuapai base less than an hour later, Cottrill was immediately put to work, picking up the afternoon shift at the Auckland Council Coordination Centre and working shoulder-to-shoulder with representatives from police, St John Ambulance, Auckland Transport, and council operations staff.
“It was a big operation; we realised pretty quickly it was one of the largest incidents the country’s experienced,” Cottrill said.
“It ramped up so quickly, and was certainly unprecedented in terms of scale.”
Having all the key players in one room meant a more efficient emergency response.
“We had a direct line to council staff, and were able to liaise with other emergency services, who were asking us for assistance as well.”
Cottrill also oversaw the creation of New Zealand’s first-ever swift-and-deep-water rescue teams.
“We brought 12 firefighters who had previous specialist experience and training in things like canyoning or water rescue up to Auckland.
“Each four-person team had a raft and team members in dry suits with personal location devices to execute rescues if required.”
A team responded to a rescue south of Auckland the first night, although it was resolved before they arrived.
“But now we know we can quickly pull them together,” Cottrill said. “There will be water rescue teams put up around the country in a more permanent capacity.”
The incident was a huge disruption for Aucklanders, including emergency personnel.
“Many firefighters had homes impacted and were cut off in rural communities,” Cottrill said.
“There has been a big focus on welfare, making contact with all the stations that were involved, and ensuring that support is available.”
In the midst of constantly ringing phones and coordinating the logistics of accommodation, food, and vehicles for the Fenz staff pouring in from around the country, some moments stood out for Cottrill.
“The day we returned to Wairarapa, there was a house that collapsed and reports of a person stuck,” he recalled.
“And when you heard about the people who lost their lives, it’s really tragic.
“And incidents of people in vehicles in water, lives were in danger – and at the same time, you had to be careful with the responders, keeping in mind a lot of this happened at night, in the dark.”
In the week following January 27, Fenz reported 3477 calls from around the upper North Island, of which 2544 were weather-related.