Terms of Civil Defence review released

Last year's Kaikoura earthquake exposed cracks in Civil Defence's functions, which the Government is now reviewing. Photo: Bernard Hickey.

The Government has released the terms of reference for its Civil Defence review, following concerns about the response to recent emergencies.

The advisory group carrying out the review has three months to report back - here’s what you need to know about its work.

Why is this review happening?

The Civil Defence response to last November’s Kaikoura earthquake, and this February’s Port Hills fires, was seen as lacking in a number of areas.

The issue is not so much the efforts of volunteers on the ground, but the communication between the local and central agencies with various degrees of responsibility.

The primary concern after the Kaikoura quake was the mixed messages about the tsunami risk in different parts of the country, while in Christchurch the Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee raised concerns about the lack of information being given to the Government, as well as the delay in declaring a local state of emergency.

In one of his final acts before taking on the foreign affairs portfolio, Brownlee announced a review into how to improve emergency management response.

What will it consider?

According to the terms of reference released by current Civil Defence Minister Nathan Guy, the review will focus on the organisational structures and decision-making powers spread across different levels.

In particular, there’s a suggestion that “the underlying principle of ‘act locally, coordinate regionally, support nationally’ may not be suitable in all circumstances”.

The Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management (MCDEM) handles top-level strategy, but 16 regional groups call the shots in their areas and individual councils can still declare local states of emergency - a complex mix.

The terms of reference also mention concerns that decisions aren’t being made by “adequately skilled and experienced people”, a lack of professional support for volunteers, and problems with the flow of information to those in charge of making decisions.

What could be changed?

There’s specific reference to the current devolved model of decision making and chain of command.

After the Kaikoura quake, Brownlee spoke about shaking up Civil Defence’s command and control structure - that could mean placing more power in the hands of MCDEM at the expense of local officials, which may be fought by councils.

The terms of reference also mention state of emergency powers, as well as whether there is the need for “an interim mechanism to manage a localised event with significant consequences”, filling the gap between local and national states of emergency.

Who’s handling the review?

The Government has set up a technical advisory group with former National minister Roger Sowry as chairman, along with representatives from local government, police, the Fire Service, the Defence Force, and MCDEM.

There’s also a cross-parliamentary group of MPs providing their views - they signed off on the terms of reference.

What next?

The advisory group is taking public submissions on its work, and will also approach groups and agencies with an interest in emergency management.

It has three months to come back to Guy with findings - although he expects an interim report by late August.