Christchurch City Council staff drop their day jobs to help when emergency calls

Christchurch City Council staff working in Civil Defence roles during July's flooding of the Heathcote River.
KIRK HARGREAVES

Christchurch City Council staff working in Civil Defence roles during July's flooding of the Heathcote River.

By day, Corey Shelton is one of the Christchurch City Council's resident IT guys. He fixes computers, but when disaster strikes he leads a team of trained volunteers and heads into the community to help where needed. 

During last month's floods, Shelton was going door to door in a boat evacuating people and making sure residents were alright. During February's fires, he was helping out at the welfare centres, manning the cordons and providing first aid support to firefighters  After the November 2016 earthquake, he helped with the arrival in Lyttelton of Kaikoura evacuees onboard the HMNZS Canterbury.

Shelton is one of hundreds of staff at the council who are called on to help out when a state of emergency is called or when a Civil Defence response is needed. Most staff have it written into their contracts that they must be available, if needed. They receive training on how to respond in disasters. Some staff also volunteer to take on extra responsibility and receive additional training to allow them to manage teams.

 

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The staff do not get paid any extra when working in a disaster. They often work long hours and have to catch up on their day to day work when they return to their desks.

Shelton has been volunteering in one of three response teams in Christchurch since 2004, eight years before he was employed by the council in 2012. 

Phil Crutchley, one of CCC's Port Hills and Peninsula Rangers, during the 2017 Port Hills fires.
Kirk Hargreaves

Phil Crutchley, one of CCC's Port Hills and Peninsula Rangers, during the 2017 Port Hills fires.

"My father drilled into me that you give back to the community. It's a family thing, that you always give back to the community."

He loves his disaster role because he likes to help people, even though sometimes people don't want to be helped.

"We go out and talk to people and take the brunt of anger from people and try to calm them down a bit. Once they've calmed down, we say 'what do you want us to do?'."

 

Shelton describes himself as a rapid thinker.

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"I don't do planning very well. So I can deal with a situation on the spot and fix it, but the long-term stuff is not me."

The long-term stuff he talks about is the job of people like Michael Day, who heads the logistics team during an emergency.

Christchurch City Council staff working in Civil Defence roles during July's flooding of the Heathcote River.
Kirk Hargreaves

Christchurch City Council staff working in Civil Defence roles during July's flooding of the Heathcote River.

Day is employed at the council as an accountant, but when he steps into the council's emergency operations centre (EOC), he is the guy people go to when they need something.

His role has been described as a type of "quartermaster". The logistics team manages the rosters, finds accommodation for people being evacuated, makes sure people are being deployed to the right places and ensures the welfare centres are resourced and managed. During the fires Day's team also had to find somewhere safe to house the stray livestock, who were at risk from the fires. 

"Every other team goes to them and says I need this," Shelton says.

Day has been employed by the council for 10 years and first became involved with Civil Defence during the September 2010 earthquake.

"It's very different and challenging," he says.

"What I enjoy is bringing calmness to something like that."

He says it is important to keep the team calm and focused. 

"In logistics you can get requests coming in left, right and centre that are really random."

It is the team's job to meet those requests and solve problems that arise.

The November 2016 earthquake was one of the most difficult in terms of logistics, Day says.

The team had organised enough buses to take more than 600 evacuees arriving at Lyttelton from Kaikoura onboard the HMNZS Canterbury to the Horncastle Arena. But the ship's arrival time was delayed to the point where the bus drivers had to go home because legally they were not allowed to work any longer. 

At 4am Day was left to find enough replacement buses for more than 600 people. 

"We managed to get the transport through a different company, so the people disembarking had no idea we had the problem. It just flowed seamlessly and they had no idea of the panic that was going on at the EOC."

When HMNZS Canterbury docked a second time with a load of evacuees, Day had four plans in place. 

"We did use up to plan C, but no-one knew. The controller came up to me and said 'why are you looking so calm?' I said 'well we haven't got up to plan D yet'."

The EOC is responsible for decision making and planning during an emergency. The centre is staffed by council workers and people from other organisations are bought in including police, the fire service, the army, Red Cross and St John. Some agencies such as the police run their own EOCs in parallel.

As well as manning the council's EOC, staff are also seconded to other councils' EOCs when they are needed. During the November 2016 earthquake, staff worked at Hurunui and Kaikoura EOCs, because those councils are not big enough to sustain 24 hour shifts. Staff from other councils also come to help out in Christchurch when called upon.

Day's team sets up the EOC in a council meeting room. They are getting pretty fast at it and can have the room fully equipped with desks, computers, whiteboards and phones within 15 minutes. 

"It is a well oiled machine."

However, once the Justice Precinct is completed the EOC will move into a purpose-built facility. 

Christchurch has faced three states of emergency since November last year and they have all covered different natural disasters and thrown up separate challenges.

The council's response to some of these emergencies has been criticised by residents including the tsunami generated from the November earthquake and the Port Hills fire. There was widespread uncertainty about evacuating coastal areas following the earthquake and people were confused by mixed messages and inadequate information. 

Residents were also upset at the lack of information coming out about the fires. 

Council customer and community general manager Mary Richardson, who is a Civil Defence EOC controller, says following each event the council reviews its response and outlines what it can do better.

"We got better by the flooding. We had a much slicker response."

Richardson has little patience for "armchair critics". 

"You can always look back and say 'if we had that information or you knew what we knew now, we would have done things differently'.

"I know how hard council staff and volunteers work and no-one consciously goes 'I'm going to go and do as little as I can'. They go in there to do the best they possibly can and to get criticism mid-event is really difficult.

"It's not helpful because it lowers the confidence of the public and the morale of the people doing the job. After every event we always do a debrief and corrective action report. That is the time you highlight what could have been done better."

Council public information and participation head Di Keenan, who becomes the EOC public information manager, says the council had good information during the floods. 

"We didn't know where the fires were going. With the floods we knew what roads were closed and when the high tides were."

She says the biggest frustration is not having the information that residents want to know. 

Helping to obtain some of that information during an emergency is Mike Jacobson. He belongs to the EOC team whose job it is to collect information from the people on the ground and feed it back into the EOC.

He says it can be challenging to get the facts because people on the ground are often busy dealing with the situation. 

His EOC job is quite different to his day job as the council's transport asset management team leader, where he plans which roads the council will need to repair during the next five years. 

​"You've got time to investigate things and work out a plan of attack, but in Civil Defence you have two hours. You have got to make decisions and carry on. It's quite a different gear change. It's fun though."

Every event is different and you can only train so much before you have to just react to the situation, he says.

 - Stuff

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