Cyclone Gabrielle: Emergency call centre staff traumatised after cyclone

By Checkpoint RNZ

Emergency 111 call-takers who were on the phone to people clinging to rooftops in fear of their lives during the cyclone are still traumatised by what they heard.

In the 12 hours where Gabrielle unleashed her worst on the upper North Island, the 111 call centre received more than five times its usual volume of calls for help. 

That's 1275 calls between 11pm, 13 February through to 11am the next morning. 

"The number of calls far exceeded our people's capacity to respond to them all and the conditions prevented our people reaching many of the calls we were able to respond to," FENZ national Commander Russell Wood said earlier this week.

The level of flooding, and sometimes their own circumstances, meant responders were unable reach many of those in need. At night, helicopters were unable to rescue people, and the next day efforts were hampered by high winds.

NZ Professional Firefighters' Union representative Carlos Dempsey, 111 call-taker and team leader, said the callers were desperate.

"There were numerous calls from people who were stuck either in vehicles, on roads cut off by slips in, in their roofs of their house or even in their houses and sheds -pretty much everywhere in between - who were unable to evacuate," he told Checkpoint on Friday.

"They spent sometimes 30 to 40 minutes on some of these calls and developed a real relationship with the people that were right in the thick of it with them, and could hear everything that was going on behind, around them and they were working with to try and get them help when they could."

Dempsey said he heard about one call from a person who was so convinced they were not going to make it, they asked the 111 staffer to pray with them.

"[The call-taker] utilised good-old Google to search up some prayers that they could share with this person."

Some have struggled seeing incidents they entered into the computer not getting resolved as quickly as usual - in many cases, because there were not enough emergency staff to attend right away. 

"There were several jobs where the outcome was obvious from the beginnings of the call, but there were some [that were not]. 

"So normally a job that we enter into our computer system is only there until a resolution is reached, until the fire's put out, the person is rescued - and normally that's matter of hours, not normally days, and that was something challenging for our people, coming back to work day after day and seeing those jobs that they took still hadn't been resolved because it was so hard to get through to people.

"But we were working through our system systematically, calling people back… to see if if the situation had changed. It might have got better and maybe they didn't need help anymore and we could divert resource to other people. 

"So yeah… some of those have not been successful, but we'll keep telling ourselves that we did the best. We were there to support them and, you know, we did the best for those people in their hour of need. And if anything, we gave them some comfort and [they] knew that someone was looking out for them."

Twenty-three people remain uncontacted since Cyclone Gabrielle hit two weeks ago. Eleven have been confirmed killed in the strongest storm to hit New Zealand in living memory.

Wood said there would be a review into the emergency response, "including how we responded to 111 calls, but at the moment our focus is on the immediate response and recovery effort".