Governor-General Quentin Bryce. Photo: Jeffrey Chan
The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet has had to correct the bungled handling of humanitarian award eligibility status for hundreds of Australian rescue volunteers who responded to the Christchurch earthquake and the Japanese tsunami almost two years ago.
Urban Search and Rescue team members told Fairfax Media the original amendments covering the Humanitarian Overseas Service Medal gazetted by the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, in May excluded all the USAR volunteers who wen to the disaster areas.
To qualify, members had to be a member of an eligible organisation and have been ''in country'' for 14 days. Numerous organisations, including ACT Fire and Rescue and ACT Ambulance, which sent volunteers were left off the list.
Some of the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake in February 2011. Photo: AP
Fairfax Media understands no USAR volunteers from either the Christchurch or the Japanese disasters were ''in country'' for 14 days. In the case of Christchurch, many workers missed out by one day.
The Governor-General's office, acting on fresh advice from the parliamentary secretary to the Prime Minister Senator Jan McLucas, uploaded an amendment to the original amendment on Thursday morning.
Time served in Japan has been cut to seven days, 11 additional bodies - including the two ACT agencies - have been added to the list of ''eligible organisations'' for Christchurch, and emergency service chiefs are being advised ''special consideration'' is being given to workers who served in Christchurch even though the time requirement is officially unchanged.
Friday marks the second anniversary of the Christchurch earthquake on February 22, 2011. About 150 highly trained urban search and rescue volunteers, made up of two taskforces organised out of NSW and Queensland respectively, were in place at the disaster zone in less than 36 hours.
A third taskforce, made up of volunteers drawn from across the country, was dispatched on March 4. The third taskforce included two paramedics and three firefighters from the ACT. Members of all three taskforces spent up to 13 days in the devastated city, an almost unprecedented length of time for urban search and rescue volunteers who virtually work around the clock for up to 50 hours after a disaster while the chance of finding survivors is still relatively good.
Senator McLucas, who signed off on the original amendment to cover the two 2011 disasters, said the 14-day qualifying period for Christchurch was based on precedent.
''Generally speaking, 14 days is the qualifying period of service in response to natural disasters, except tsunamis for which the qualifying period of service is seven days,'' she told Fairfax Media.
Urban search and rescue volunteers said the precedent was flawed and displayed a profound ignorance of the work they did, the hours they put in and the conditions to which they were exposed.
''Nobody could keep going for 14 days straight in the conditions we experienced in Christchurch,'' one veteran of the initial survivor search said.
Chief superintendent John Cawcutt, leader of the Queensland USAR taskforce in Christchurch agreed. ''The team worked a 12-hour roster during the deployment (in reality during the rescue phase this extends to 14 to 16 hours due to contamination and debriefs),'' he said in a letter to Peter Rush, the assistant secretary awards and culture, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, dated February 1.
''The subsequent work time of 144 hours equates to an 18-day deployment for the many (other) agencies that worked eight-hour shifts.''
Volunteers in Christchurch had to contend with hundreds of aftershocks and those sent to Japan lived with the fear of radiation leaking from a damaged nuclear reactor.