The long-awaited findings of a government review into Civil Defence may be released by Christmas, Civil Defence Minister Kris Faafoi says.
However, Faafoi has seemingly ruled out any significant centralisation of the country’s emergency management system, instead hinting at a push to recruit more volunteers.
Under the previous government, Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee commissioned a review of the systems in place following confusion over tsunami warnings in the wake of last year’s Kaikoura earthquake.
At the time, Brownlee said it was “inevitable” changes would be made to Civil Defence’s structure, adding: "The whole command and control structure of [the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management] needs to be looked at.”.
The terms of reference for the review were released by Brownlee’s successor, Nathan Guy, in June, but he said in September an interim report and Cabinet paper would be prepared for the Government to consider after the election.
Faafoi said he had read the interim report and was happy with the work carried out by the technical advisory group to identify areas for potential change. There were 42 recommendations in total, ranging from “relatively low-hanging fruit to some sizeable proposals”.
“I think on the whole it’s [the Civil Defence system] pretty solid, but I think there are certainly some areas that can be approved upon.”
“Allowing locals to have an amount of control in responding in early stages is what you need because they know and are hopefully equipped and trained to do what they need to."
The terms of reference for the review noted that “the underlying principle of ‘act locally, coordinate regionally, support nationally’ may not be suitable in all circumstances”.
The different layers of control, with the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management (MCDEM) handling top-level strategy but 16 regional groups calling the shots in their areas and individual councils still able to declare local states of emergency, caused issues in the response to both the Kaikoura earthquake and the Port Hills fires in Christchurch.
However, Faafoi said he believed stronger relationships, rather than greater centralisation of emergency powers, was the best way to improve the system.
“Allowing locals to have an amount of control in responding in early stages is what you need because they know and are hopefully equipped and trained to do what they need to in the first instances, then we keep a pretty close eye on what's happening through it, and if we need to it we’re only a phone call away and we start preparing resources if need be.”
Faafoi acknowledged there had been “failings” with the flow of information in both Kaikoura and Christchurch which needed to be addressed.
Potential push for volunteers
Another major concern was building up the stock of volunteers at a local level, which could be boosted by a push by central government, he said.
“Civil Defence is not a bunch of bureaucrats, it’s actually people in communities, and making sure that we’ve got system in place for them, and the training is right, and we’ve got enough willing volunteers in those crucial positions to be able to deal with any event…
“I think that not through any fault of their own, some regions might be struggling with that. If we can assist in some better structure for that, that’s one of the things we should look at.”
Faafoi said he intended to re-establish a cross-party working group so the Opposition was aware of the Government’s plans, and still needed to discuss some of the recommendations with his ministerial colleagues.
“Some of the issues are relatively easy to deal with, and there are other areas that will require far more consultation with the regions to make sure they’re comfortable with where things sit.”
Asked whether the report’s findings would be released by the end of the year, Faafoi said: “I don’t think that’s unreasonable, but I guess that depends on how conversations go.”
Faafoi believed Kiwis were becoming more aware of the need for disaster preparedness, although there was “probably a little bit of complacency” in some quarters.
“I guess that’s what we’ve tried to do with some of the work in the last 12 months around long and strong, get that kind of preventive work and put into New Zealanders’ minds that actually for about a week, if something happens they’ve got to be by themselves so they all need to be prepared.”
Faafoi said he was happy with a recent trial of the $18 million mobile alerting system, which reached 30 per cent of cellphones. The system would eventually reach up to 70 per cent of phones as software and handsets were updated, he said.
“It’s a big investment, and even at 30 per cent our ability to get messages out to people is much more effective than waiting for people to either pick it up on social media or via traditional media.”