Up close with demands on emergency workers

Wellington is about to get a crash course in dealing with our increasingly severe weather, with hundreds of emergency workers coming to town.

More than 1000 people will next week attend the emergency services conference in Wellington, the second-biggest the capital has held. It comes after a wild few years for Wellington, with last year's storm and quakes and increasingly severe, damaging winds.

Fire Service national commander and chief executive Paul Baxter said the growing number of natural disasters, and how emergency services handled them, would be topping the agenda.

"The climate has changed, whether you believe in the reasons for it or not," he said. "Extreme-weather events have become more frequent over the past 50 years and are predicted to become even more extreme."

New Zealand was already moving to deal with the increase, he said. Specialist self-sufficient teams equipped with their own food and tents had been set up and could be sent to a disaster area "at the drop of a hat".

Increasingly, the Fire Service was keeping an eye on the weather and deploying crews to areas before weather events arrived. The Fire Service - along with others such as paramedics, engineers and doctors - was in the process of training a 200-member team to be certified as part of the United Nations international search and rescue group.

It meant that a team of 70 could be deployed to other countries to help after a natural disaster.

Fire Service figures show callouts had steadily risen in the past 20 years, from 1329 in 1994-95 to 4689 last year. This was despite a drop in the number of actual fires.

There were 8778 callouts in the 2010-11 year. While 5311 of these were for the Canterbury earthquakes, there were 3396 wind and flooding callouts that same year.

Niwa meteorologist Richard Turner said since June last year there had been a series of seven or eight "violent wind events".

The bad run began with a southerly storm in Wellington last June, when a 200kmh gust was recorded at the top of Mt Kaukau.

"The period since June 2013 has been the worst for wind in many decades," he said. The last comparable time was in the 1970s, but he understood the severe-weather events then were not so concentrated.

The Australasian Fire and Emergency Services Authorities Council and Bushfire and Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Centre conference runs from Tuesday to Friday at Shed 6 and TSB Bank Arena.

Positively Wellington Venues chief executive Glenys Coughlan said for size it would be second only to the Diabetes Federation conference in Wellington in 2008.

It could be held in Wellington thanks to a refit of Shed 6, which was attached to the arena, making a footprint of more than 5000 square metres. More than half those coming were from Australia.

The Dominion Post