Duncan Garner: The burning question: Is Civil Defence a disaster in the making?

Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee, left, Mayor of Selwyn District Sam Broughton and Prime Minister Bill English ...
STACY SQUIRES/FAIRFAX NZ

Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee, left, Mayor of Selwyn District Sam Broughton and Prime Minister Bill English visit the command centre for the Christchurch fires.

OPINION: This might be a first: I write in defence of an angry and frustrated Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee.

He was absolutely right to tear Civil Defence a new backside after their woeful handling of the Christchurch fires. 

After decades of experience in this area – and fresh from the quake experiences in the city – how on earth did this organisation so royally stuff this up? 

They were quick to call a state of emergency for the fires in Hawke's Bay but the phone was off the hook in Christchurch. 

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Not only were they too slow to declare a state of emergency, which gives authorities more powers and resources, but when they did act they couldn't have got it more wrong. 

Unbelievably, information that 30 to 40 houses had been destroyed was released publicly and quoted extensively, including by Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel. 

They even put out a statement to the media which everyone pressed 'go' on. Why wouldn't we? We trust Civil Defence … don't we? 

But then an hour later came the embarrassing and inconvenient truth. Just seven houses had been lost at that point. 

The blunders didn't stop there; on Thursday night Civil Defence said 3000 homes had been evacuated, then corrected the figure back to 1000.

Never splash egg on the face of a publicly-elected official. Never. That's rule number one. Make them look in control. 

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Truth is, who was in control? Anyone? No-one very smart is the answer. 

The fire service does a great and valiant job and this is not an attack on them.

This is a flick at the clip-board-carrying bureaucrats who make the big calls. They look flakey this week. 

My sources in emergency management in Christchurch tell me the chiefs in the Fire Service, and in particular the rural service, are to blame for all this, but that'll all come out in Brownlee's big wash-up. 

My sources also tell me the vicious finger-pointing has started behind the scenes. The 'please explains' are well under way. 

Brownlee will want his pound of flesh, and these days, the short-tempered minister lacks his old sense of humour. 

This performance is embarrassing for him. He's a local MP and the minister in charge. Whoops. 

Even Brownlee, who is no fan of the media, admitted he was relying on the press for reliable information and not his own people. That would have made him even grumpier.

The public these days is quick to turn to social media for advice and updates but even then the official Civil Defence Twitter account had sent out a pathetic two tweets in 17 hours. 

That's poor. Not good enough. Other public Twitter accounts have been better since the state of emergency.

But maybe this is the catalyst for change. It's not as if Civil Defence has an unblemished record.

The agency came under severe criticism immediately after the Kaikoura earthquake – issuing no tsunami warning, but then doing so 55 minutes later. 

A two-metre-high tsunami had already hit the Kaikoura coast by then.

Imagine if there had been loss of life. Would they have blood on their hands? Would we be blaming them? 

This actually is life and death stuff. And it's crucial we get it right. 

I think Brownlee should have a proper and decent review of this organisation. Pull back the curtains and let's have a good look inside.

If it means Civil Defence needs to be better resourced, let's do it. If it means time-serving officials are no longer fit for purpose, move them on.

We do not live in a benign environment. We all need to have confidence. If, as a country, we've cut corners and haven't invested in the right emergency gear and people, then let's be up front about that. 

But the worst thing here is the people of Christchurch deserved much better. They've suffered enough. They had every right to think emergency agencies had their back. They didn't. 

They were let down. Now they rightly deserve some full and frank answers. 

It's time for some honesty. 

 - The Dominion Post

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