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July 2018 Issue
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A life Aspiring

Aaron Nicholson is one of the most experienced police SAR coordinators in the country.
From dealing with New Zealand’s most dangerous criminals to rescuing trampers in one of the country’s most treacherous national parks, Aaron Nicholson’s 30-year career in the police has been one of extremes.

When Aaron Nicholson first moved to Wanaka 18 years ago to take up the role of officer-in-charge, he was thrown into the deep end. But in this case, the deep end involved scaling the perilous, glaciated slopes of Mt Aspiring.

“The first time I came down, the local detective, Pete Corbett, said ‘you’re in charge of SAR, so you better get to know your beat’,” Nicholson recalls.

And thus, he became acquainted with Aspiring – a peak he learned can end the life of even New Zealand’s most experienced mountaineers.

“Pete took me up Aspiring, but I had never climbed a mountain before, and I had no idea what I was doing,” Nicholson admits. “I was a classic case where if I’d had an accident you would have said ‘he should never have been there’. I wasn’t aware of the hazards or dangers and I thought it was relatively easy. Since then, after dealing with fatality after fatality – people that were a lot more competent than me – you realise how high the risks are.”

But Nicholson is used to risk. He began his career in Whangarei and went on to specialise in the Armed Offenders Squad. He ended up running the squad’s special tactics team, dealing with the most challenging cases, including manhunts, hostage situations, drug surveillance and anti-terrorism.

“It was outstanding,” Nicholson says. “It’s the most fun a young single man can have, flying around in helicopters, rappelling off tall buildings, blowing things up and firing machine guns. But it didn’t suit family life.”

After he had his first child, he decided to head south and get his adrenalin hit in the mountains, skiing and hunting. 

“It was like turning the clock back 20 years,” he says. “In Auckland, you felt like you had to watch your kids all the time. In Wanaka, they could disappear for half the day on their bikes and they could have a childhood running around the streets.”

The emotional strain of dealing with several fatalities most years was the hardest part of the job, he says.

“When I first joined the police when I was 19, the first job was an infant death. My last job this year was pulling out the remains of a person who was burned in a caravan fire. There have been so many deaths in between and unfortunately search and rescue has emphasised that.

“There have been some tragic deaths that I have been involved in. Looking back, I don’t mind the mechanics of it – the physical side of what you see. It’s the emotional toll of dealing with the families that I struggle with. Their grief becomes your grief. Some people can remove themselves from that and don’t mind. But that’s not my personality – I’m sure it takes its toll. 

“I don’t think it’s helpful for me to deal with that anymore. You can’t get rid of it. You can rationalise it, but you can’t get rid of it.”

After leaving the police in May, he says the management of search and rescue needs a rethink. The current system can be inefficient and there needs to be a dedicated SAR service.

“On any callout in the backcountry, depending on how it’s logged, the incident could be responded to by the air ambulance service, the Rescue Coordination Centre, or police – and you’re not necessarily going to get the service with the best expertise for the situation.

“That’s not a smart way of doing things. It’s a very outdated model – it’s been the same for the last 30 years – and it’s a big frustration.”

The funding is also complex, involving ACC, the Ministry of Health, St John, Police and RCCNZ. Nicholson believes one organisation should take over managing search and rescue and be resourced to do the job effectively. 

“I think it works well having the police coordinate SAR, but it comes at a cost that it may not be able to bear. [And] SAR is not what they consider their core business, so it’s not well funded. For things like helicopter rescues, they don’t have the funding to manage that very well – there’s always a lot of angst over the cost of search and rescue in the police.”

He says finding and retaining highly skilled volunteers is also likely to become increasingly difficult. He believes a mixed professional model should be looked at, where a small number of highly skilled SAR staff are paid.

“Volunteerism works really well and it’s a positive thing, but compliance issues are sneaking into that environment, and it puts extra pressure on volunteers who are usually already trying to juggle full-time work.”

St John already has a mixed model of paid professionals and volunteers and Nicholson says that could be the future for SAR. Aoraki/Mt Cook has a full-time professional search and rescue team, funded and managed by DOC. 

“There’s an argument that there is no difference between Mt Cook and Aspiring. We have a similar number of fatalities.”

Nicholson plans to continue volunteering for WanakaSAR, but working out in the field, rather than as a coordinator.

“I reached the age of 50 and 30 years of service at the same time and I didn’t want to be in the frontline after the age of 50. I wanted it to end while I still had a good sense of humour and wasn’t twisted about things. There are other things I’d like to do now.”