Councils' powers may be considered in Civil Defence review: Government


Sarah Stuart-Black gives an update on the state of Kaikoura from Civi Defence.

Local councils' powers to control how they handle disasters may be reconsidered in a review of Civil Defence's structure, the Government says.

The Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management (MCDEM) and local Civil Defence groups have come under fire for their response to last week's earthquake and the tsunami warnings it triggered.

Residents in Napier, Wellington, Christchurch and Southland have complained about mixed messages regarding the tsunami risk, with a lack of clarity around which areas needed to evacuate and why sirens were not sounded.

Sarah Stuart-Black says officials do not want to rely on an off-the-shelf solution, given New Zealand's unique geography.

Sarah Stuart-Black says officials do not want to rely on an off-the-shelf solution, given New Zealand's unique geography.

Under the current Civil Defence structure, local Civil Defence groups – formed of elected councillors within a region – are in charge of handling the response to an emergency, with support from MCDEM.

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A 2012 review of Civil Defence's response to the February 2011 earthquake in Christchurch recommended that local authorities no longer have power to control the response to emergencies, while still keeping the power to declare them.

Changes to Civil Defence are inevitable, Acting Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee says.

Changes to Civil Defence are inevitable, Acting Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee says.

The MCDEM director at the time, John Hamilton, said the change was not necessary, despite highlighting "tensions" within the Canterbury Civil Defence group before the deadly quake.

Acting Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee said he would not start planning any review until "we get some clear space" from response efforts.

"We're not going to divert any of the resources of Civil Defence, or other agencies of state quite frankly...while we're dealing with something that has to be our absolute priority."

However, asked whether the Government would reconsider the recommendation regarding local councils' powers, Brownlee said, "We've got to look at it."

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The layers of communication between scientists, MCDEM and local authorities in some areas, such as tsunami alerts, was a concern, he said.

"The science is firstly conveyed by GNS to Civil Defence, Civil Defence then makes the call and conveys that to the local authorities who then have the responsibility to issue the warnings - now, just saying that sounds cumbersome, so there's a lot to sort out there just yet."

Brownlee did not believe Hamilton was wrong to advise against making the change following the Christchurch earthquakes, given most "disasters" in New Zealand were regional in nature.

"If you have a river burst its bank or a big slip somewhere, it will affect a very small number of people.

"In this case, we've got a number of problems that are across a very large geographical chunk of New Zealand, and each area is handling it a little differently."

Councils could not be shut out of any Civil Defence structure given the importance of their staff, Brownlee said.


Hurunui Mayor Winton Dalley said local people were in the best position to make local decisions, using local knowledge such as the location of vulnerable people.

"We would have been able to service our community better, more quickly, if we'd had the ability to make decisions at a local level."

For events such as a tsunami, there was a reliance on national information as there wasn't a local ability to judge risk, but immediate responses to an event had to start local or "nothing happens for a period of time", Dalley said.

MCDEM director Sarah Stuart-Black said the ministry's focus was still on public safety and community wellbeing, but work on a review could start within weeks.

Stuart-Black would speak to Brownlee about the terms of reference for any review, but said it would be best if it was as wide as possible.

"We need to look at issues across the whole response effort rather than ending up with something that's quite narrow."

The local response from individual Civil Defence organisations was likely to be examined, she said.

 - Stuff


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