Case for 24/7 hazards monitoring to go to Cabinet

Problems with the response to last November's Kaikoura earthquake led to calls for 24/7 hazards monitoring. Photo: Bernard Hickey

A business case for 24/7 natural hazards monitoring will soon go before Cabinet, on the back of MPs raising concerns about a lack of urgency around New Zealand’s ability to detect the next disaster.

The lack of round-the-clock staffing for hazards monitoring, in favour of an on-call approach, led to criticism after last November’s Kaikoura earthquake.

At the time, GeoNet director Ken Gledhill said a lack of a 24/7 monitoring centre was a significant flaw, while an internal Civil Defence review of its response later noted tsunami warnings were “hampered” by the fact that GNS Science was in charge of monitoring and assessing the risk, while the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management (MCDEM) handled warnings.

“This practice is unnecessary complicated and can cause delay, which is further impaired by the fact that neither MCDEM nor GNS Science conduct their responsibilities from a dedicated, 24/7 monitoring and warning centre.”

In this year’s Budget, the Government allocated $19.5 million over the next four years to improve New Zealand’s hazards response - including “the development of 24/7 natural hazards monitoring”.

A business case prepared by GNS Science and funded by MBIE was due to be completed for Cabinet to consider in July.

However, that has not yet happened - a fact noted with some concern by Parliament’s government administration committee.

Labour Civil Defence spokeswoman Clare Curran presented a petition to Parliament asking the Government to provide funding for a 24/7 hazards monitoring service, after over 11,000 people signed an online petition demanding action.

In its report on Curran’s petition released last week, the committee said it was “pleased to see that work is under way in an attempt to address some of the issues raised”.

“We are however concerned that timelines appear to be slipping and that urgency needs to be applied to improving New Zealand’s round the clock capacity for hazard monitoring and communication.

“We hope that the outcome of the business case will provide more certainty about the focus of funding, and canvass the potential benefits of a 24/7 hazards monitoring service.”

Curran told Newsroom she was also worried with a lack of urgency on the project.

“I just don’t think it’s been taken seriously enough by MBIE, whoever's going to make the decisions around funding allocation and if there’s going to be any funding allocation.

“I don’t know why they couldn’t have ramped things up in the interim until they did a business case, they could have spent some money to ensure there was extra capacity within GNS to be working around the clock and ensure there were people actually on duty rather than people who are asleep in their beds and on call.”

Curran said the business case needed to be made public at some point so Kiwis could see what was being proposed.

“New Zealanders need to feel as if something has changed following last November’s earthquake.

“It was GNS itself that went public - it’s not as if we’re making it up, it was Ken Gledhill that went public and said how urgent it was.”

Dr Gill Jolly, GNS Science’s natural hazards division director, told Newsroom the business case had now been completed and was due to be considered by ministers soon.

“It includes new instrumentation; data handling, processing, and storage; decision support tools to aid faster more precise decisions; stakeholder interaction; people skills and training.”

While the Government itself has spoken about detecting and communicating hazards on a 24/7 basis, Jolly said: “We don’t use the term 24/7 as it is ambiguous and means different things to different people.

“The working title is Enhanced Geohazards Monitoring, as it builds on the long-term support for GeoNet from EQC and LINZ.”

In a statement, Science and Innovation Minister Paul Goldsmith told Newsroom: “The high level business case was only delayed by a few days. It will now be considered by ministers.”