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Ministerial Review Better Responses to Natural Disasters and Other Emergencies


During 2017 the Government undertook a review into the civil defence system in NZ. The results were published in late November last year, and officials are now considering what changes to the Civil Defence and Emergency Management (CDEM) system. Change is afoot and so it’s timely to reflect on the likely direction of travel, since water utilities are a central plank of resilience considerations in emergency management.

The Engineering Leadership Forum, of which Water NZ is a member, made submissions to and appeared before the review panel. What follows is an edited summary of the review recommendations.

New Zealanders expect a national emergency management system that can be relied on to work well when needed. That calls for a system that is underpinned by clear roles and responsibilities, good information and communication, the right capability and resources, and that makes the most of local knowledge - balanced with the need for specialist expertise and national capability. This is in keeping with the intent of the current legislation.

However, practice over the past fifteen years has not always matched this intent. The result is marked variations in practice and patchy capability across the country, and different understandings about roles, responsibilities and authority. Ensuring public confidence in the emergency management system requires strengthening the application of current legislation, consistent with the intent of the Civil Defence and Emergency Management Act (CDEM Act), together with some changes to allow stronger national-level leadership, direction and standards.

The review considered that change is needed to the functions, structures, and culture at the national level. They recommend establishing a proactive national emergency management agency to provide national coordination and support in local emergencies, national control in national emergencies, and to lift CDEM performance overall.

This includes professional leadership for the emergency management sector and a far stronger role in setting and enforcing national standards. The national agency must also provide assurance that those standards are being met. They see merit in the national director having stronger powers to direct and to ensure that responses to emergencies take account of national interests. In all emergencies – regardless of scale – the consequences affect people, local economies, and communities.

It is clear that local leadership, knowledge, and engagement with those affected communities is integral to supporting trust and confidence and to ensuring an effective response. The review recommends that mayors should have primary authority for declaring states of local emergency under the CDEM Act, and providing the option to declare a ‘major incident’ in order to signal the significance of an event and achieve public recognition of the action being taken, without the extraordinary powers invoked under a state of emergency.

Organisational arrangements need to recognise that emergency response will require territorial, regional, and national capabilities in all but the most minor events. Emergencies can quickly escalate from a contained community event to a cross-district/regional emergency. The reality of how emergencies develop, the current legislative and institutional arrangements, and human nature, all contribute to the risk of not realising an emergency is beyond one’s capability and capacity until far too late.

The current legislation intended that emergency management would be a consortium of territorial and regional effort (exercised through regional Groups). The review report recommends that intent needs to be strengthened. The majority view in the report recommends requiring the development of more formalised shared service arrangements, implemented by the regional or unitary council, to strengthen a Group-wide approach and accountability. This would be supported with consistent Group Emergency Management Office structures.

Iwi need to have a major role in regionally based arrangements. Currently the resources, capability, and social capital of iwi to assist in emergency response is not recognised in legislation, and specific needs of Māori, whanau, hapū, and iwi are often not recognised in Group plans. The review found a compelling case for iwi to be represented at all levels of the Group structure. As a result, they recommend clearer protocols with iwi, and full participation of iwi in coordination and planning structures.

There is a need for far greater professionalisation of emergency management in the CDEM system. Key roles in the system are often part-time. There is no real career path. Training and professional development is very patchy and there are no required professional standards or accreditation. Even with the best will in the world, emergency management responsibilities do not always get the priority they deserve (often an add-on to people’s ‘day jobs’). Despite the statutory requirement for Groups to have “suitably trained and competent personnel for effective emergency management in their areas”, there is no assurance that the people on the spot will have the training, capability, or aptitude needed to respond to an emergency. No one wants response efforts being undermined by having the wrong person in the job.

The report recommends that all staff in emergency management roles meet national standards for professional development and training, and key roles (for example, the Controller role) have national accreditation. Group effort needs to be backed with national capability that can be deployed as required. The recommendation to establish a cadre of professionals to act as ‘fly-in teams’ first surfaced in the Review of the CDEM Response to the 22 February Christchurch Earthquake. It received strong support then and was endorsed in many submissions received for this current review.

There are examples of surge capacity teams deployed at the regional level, in other emergency response services, and internationally. Details of the capabilities required and the most appropriate operating model will need to be worked through. The starting point should be the functions in the CIMS1 framework – controllers, planning, operations, logistics, intelligence (including science), communications, and welfare – drawn from the agencies best placed to provide these capabilities.

Local context and circumstances are important and must be taken into account in any response. But there is also a national interest in ensuring that the system will work when needed. There is a real need for some consistency, standardisation and agreed protocols (for example, in operating practice and procedures, structures, signage, roles and responsibilities). This allows Groups to support each other, and to help coordination (including, for example, deploying fly-in teams and managing cordons). The current legislation allows for this.

The report recommends greater national consistency and standards, and a more robust system of audit and assurance to ensure those standards are met. CDEM legislation is not as clear as one might expect. The authority to act, or the authority to task someone, either does not exist or is not clear. This situation can lead to a lack of coordination, no one really in charge, and the risk of poor outcomes for the community. There is a strong need to clarify that Group (and national) Controllers have control authority - the authority to task other agencies - under a state of emergency. Authority must be backed by joined-up intelligence to support decision-making, with systems that allow agencies to work to a common operating picture. New Zealand’s intelligence infrastructure and hardware has been inadequate in recent emergencies, although agencies individually have a lot of capability to draw on. Recent advances in technology could help provide better intelligence for emergency management.

The report believes a new fit-for-purpose all-of-government 24/7 monitoring, alerting, and warning centre is required, and recommends investigating existing technologies available internationally to support a common operating picture. Effective responses rely on good communications to affected communities, to the public, and to decision makers. Mayors (and Ministers) will always front in emergencies, but they will need support to do that well. Social media is increasingly important, both as a source of intelligence, and as a communications channel. There are a variety of recommendations around improving communications.