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Upping our game for big emergencies

It was a surprise to learn the current national state of emergency is only the third in New Zealand’s history – even more surprising, that all three have been in my lifetime.

The 2011 Christchurch earthquake, the covid-19 pandemic response in 2020, and now, obviously, Cyclone Gabrielle.

And it turns out, each has been declared and responded to with varying degrees of success, sparking reams of criticism, reviews, and the predictable legislative change.

The change is likely to continue too, with the Emergency Management Bill set to go before Parliament early this year.

The response to these latest weather disasters will no doubt feed into it.

Stuff has reported that the Auckland mayor’s ‘less-than-ideal’ reaction to the flooding last month has prompted the Government to consider extending emergency powers to override local authorities.

Speaking of local authority, it seems Wairarapa MP Kieran McAnulty barely held the Emergency Management portfolio five minutes before he was signing off on the third national state of emergency on Tuesday.

That signature enabled the response to be centralised, giving a national director, who ideally has an overarching view of the situation, the legal authority to pool, and then allocate and prioritise resources across New Zealand.

And, so far, it seems like a textbook response, or at least far superior to the first declaration in 2011.

Newsroom’s national affairs editor Sam Sachdeva wrote recently about the “dysfunctionally divided” structures and fragmented decision-making between regional authorities, government departments, and the national crisis management centre, as outlined in a review of the response to Christchurch’s deadly quakes.

Setting aside the tragedy that was the earthquake, some of the criticism reads like a Google review.

Civil Defence and Emergency Management Ministry director John Hamilton reportedly described the mixture of regional emergency management teams with his national unit as “putting a team on the rugby field who have never played together before”.

A cringeworthy analogy we are all too familiar with.

Another submitter in the 2018 Civil Defence review noted: “Wellington is good at writing guidelines and [regional groups] are good at ignoring them.” Again, sound familiar?

Jon Mitchell, of Massey University’s Joint Centre for Disaster Research, said what happened in the wake of the Christchurch quake, “was unnecessary and should be avoided at all costs in the future”. Thankfully, it appears we are improving.

He says the initial wave of the covid-19 response effectively applied the concept of multi-agency “unified control” that was introduced in 2019, and the current declaration: “Is exactly as the Act and emergency management best-practice envisage.”

Now that is high praise.

Speaking with our local Fire and Emergency service about resource deployments from our own and other areas to the north, it is apparent that there is high-level coordination.

However, another John, this time, John Hopkins from Canterbury University says we shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back too soon.

Noting, it’s a bad look to be in a prolonged state of emergency, which has seen New Zealand rushing through “acts to extend ‘emergency’ powers into the recovery phase,” proving problematic in 2011 and 2020.

With that in mind, here’s hoping our improved emergency response extends into the recovery phase.

Mary Argue
Mary Argue
Mary Argue is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age with an interest in justice and the region’s emergency services, regularly covering Masterton District Court, Fire and Emergency and Police.

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