NZSS Cave Search and Rescue
Search and Rescue (SaR) operations in caves are not uncommon, though serious accidents are fortunately very rare. Cave SaR operations are organised in the same way as general "land SaR" operations. The Police administer the operation and organise logistical support as required, while experienced cavers carry out the actual rescue underground.
The type of operation can vary considerably, from a "self-rescue" situation, where the remainder of the party is strong enough to assist an injured person to the surface, to a full-scale call out in a major cave. In this case, the Police will contact the cave SAR adviser for the area, who will call upon experienced local cavers (and those further afield in some cases). The adviser will liaise with the Police to ensure that the operation goes as smoothly as possible. A field controller will be appointed to manage the operation at the rescue site, while an underground controller is in charge of the operation in the cave.
Cave rescues suffer from the disadvantages that helicopters can only be used on the surface, and that radio communications are not possible underground. However, there is the advantage that the rescue does not usually have to wait until dawn to commence. Because caves often have narrow, small, or wet passages, and in many cases vertical "pitches", cave rescue can be difficult and very exhausting.
The communication problem is usually minimised bv using a specially-made earth-return telephone, called a Michie-phone, which is connected at any point along a wire laid through the cave at the start of the rescue. The design of this equipment was an NZSS initiative. NZSS was also instrumental in the development of a cave rescue stretcher, the Rescue-wrap, which supports and protects the patient, while being compact enough to carry through the narrowest passages.
The current cave SaR structures have been developed over the past 15 years. Prior to that rescues were relatively uncommon, and each was conducted on an ad hoc basis. In 1980 three cavers were trapped by floodwaters in Profanity Cave, Westland, for three days. After some confusion between Police and cavers, they were eventually rescued by digging out an all-weather entrance which had collapsed during the 1968 Inangahua earthquake. As a consequence of this informal rescue, liaison developed between the Police and NZSS over formal Organisation of a cave SaR system, on the same basis as land search and rescue.
Cave SaR advisers are appointed by the police on the recommendation of the NZSS. A cave SaR adviser acts as an expert, advising the police during a cave search and rescue operation. In the event of a cave search and rescue, the cave adviser directs the call up of rescue teams and organises, with police assistance, the necessary logistical support.
The cave SaR adviser is responsible for the readiness of local cavers for a SaR operation and availability of equipment.
To maintain and develop the search and rescue expertise of New Zealand cavers, the NZSS organises exercises (termed "SaREx"s) from time to time. Every three years a national exercise is funded by the Police. These may be focussed on rescue skills, on administrative skills of the SaR advisers, or may comprise a practical rescue exercise from a cave. In addition, there are various.regional exercises from time to time, organised either by the Society or by local clubs.
To ensure readiness for a rescue, the local clubs, assisted by NZSS, maintain kits of rescue equipment, particularly at Nelson, Motueka, and Waitomo. At Waitomo, the equipment is stored in a specially built rescue trailer, which can be towed to the site of a rescue.
Accident forms are be filled in should the occasion arise. A near miss known as an 'incident', should also be recorded. Forms are available from clubs secretaries and when completed, should be returned promptly to the NZSS Training and Safety Coordinator. Details are treated with confidence. The purpose of the forms is to determine the causes of accidents and thus avoid future occurrences.