Brownlee needs to chill on Civil Defence

Reading the news on the internet last night, as I got up to date with the Christchurch fire emergency I was quite surprised to see that the Minister of Civil Defence criticizing the agency under his watch. It was all the more surprising considering the experience that the Minister has had during his time as a Minister of the Crown in dealing with large scale emergencies.

The purpose of the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act is to provide for preparation in anticipation of a Declaration of a State of Emergency, the Declaration of States of Emergency, their conduct and subsequent lifting in a Civil Defence event. This can only be declared when a situation exists where the event is beyond the capacity of emergency services to respond and enables additional resources including the military to be used.

Civil Defence declared a local state of Emergency in Selwyn District and Christchurch City on 15 February 2017 at 1821 hours. It was in response to the rapid expansion of two large fires burning on the Port Hills of Christchurch and their rapid progress necessitating large scale evacuations, and an unpredictable situation.

Some people including the Minister for Civil Defence, Gerry Brownlee, have criticized the slowness of the Declaration of a State of Emergency. By the time it was declared several houses had been destroyed and hundreds were being evacuated.

I agree that 6-9 hours is a long time in a fluid situation where developments are happening every several minutes. But Mr Brownlee needs to chill on Civil Defence. As the Canterbury controller was quick to point out on Thursday, there are procedures that C.D. is legally bound to follow in the Act. Circumventing the Act to bring about a possibly earlier declaration would have caused confusion, and the threshhold for a declaration might not have been achieved at whatever time Mr Brownlee thought it should have been.

Having overseen the Christchurch Earthquake recovery, and been the Minister of Civil Defence at the time of the Kaikoura earthquake in November 2016, Mr Brownlee should know by now that the initial hours of an emergency are often the most confusing. The situation is often uncertain. Different agencies might be at different levels of alert, and in the case of something like a fire, there might have been a perception among the fire crews on the front line that they had the situation in check if the blazes were not advancing.

A Situation Report (commonly called SitRep), is generally issued every six hours, and notifies the controller of what has happened at a particular post and a larger report A Controller overseeing a State of Emergency is not just the liaison between the Government and Civil Defence – s/he might have several Civil Defence wards under his/he watch, with each of which are interpreting the situation as they see it within their boundaries and reporting requirements.

After all, the first rule of disasters is that ever disaster is different from the one that preceded it and the one that – heaven forbid – should eventually follow. So too is the resultant emergency and how it is conducted. As Minister of Civil Defence, Mr Brownlee would do well to remember that.

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