One year after the fires, what has New Zealand learnt?

The first I became aware of the fires on the Port Hills that started one year ago was a fellow staff member coming into the staff room and saying there is a big plume of smoke coming from the Port Hills and that it must be a scrub fire. Thinking it would probably be all over in a matter of hours I went out for a quick look and decided to have a closer look at coverage of it in the media later on. A year later, what have we learnt about fighting such fires?

For awhile an amalgamation of the New Zealand Fire Service and other emergency services has been on the cards. Whilst the individual organizations still exist as such, the umbrella organisation overlooking them has changed to Fire and Emergency New Zealand.

To the average person from one day to the next, that means little. One still obviously dials 111 for emergencies. The Police, Fire and St John still have their distinctive roles to play. What has changed is how events requiring an inter agency response are managed. Too late for the 11 houses that were destroyed in the fires last year, but hopefully not too late to prevent a repeat of such an event somewhere else in New Zealand.

When the fires started, the first on the scene were the Fire Service. But, although it was normally the first to respond to rural fires, the Fire Service jurisdiction lay within urban areas. In a rural fire event, the Fire Service would hand over to the Rural Fire Service when their personnel arrived. With 38 fire districts shared between the F.S. and the N.R.F.S., little wonder perhaps that confusion reigned. With these particular fires traversing the boundaries of Selwyn District, Christchurch City and Department of Conservation land, exactly who was in charge (or not in charge)of what, was a mystery.

People affected have complained of a lack of information being fed to them by Civil Defence or the Fire Service. A lack of intelligence meant when the forecast easterly change on Day 3 happened, the Selwyn District Civil Defence did not get it. Information about fire behaviour and progress all seemed to be missing. The Fire Service acknowledges this.

Whilst progress has been made addressing the command structure of the Fire Service, can the same be said for the replanting of the Port Hills areas burnt by the fire with less fire prone vegetation types. Carrying out this replanting using such vegetation types will help to reduce the risk to properties in the future.

It also raises questions about peoples preparedness for scrub fires that firefighters lose control of. Many people who were forced to move, were made to do so at short notice, meaning valuables, documents such as passports, driver licenses and so forth, ended up being left behind.

Finally one point of interest remains. If one looks at the Crimes Act provisions for arson, a person may be liable for up to 14 years imprisonment if they are found to have caused intentional damage by fire to property knowing a risk to life is likely to ensue; 7 years if found to have caused intentional damage by fire to property that they have no interest in. The Act says nothing about providing for someone found guilty of multiple instances in either case.

With warm weather forecast today, one hopes that fire wise it ends up being a damn sight less eventful than 13 February 2017 and the days following were.

The Emergency Mobile Alert

The Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management is rolling out the Emergency Mobile Alert channel on 26 November 2017.

Between 1800 and 1900 hours that day (Sunday), phones capable of receiving an alert message will do so. This is expected to be about 1/3 of all New Zealand cellphone users and is forecast to rise substantially as people upgrade their phones. At the moment my own Huawei P8 Lite falls just outside the range of Huawei devices expected to receive the message.

This is all well and good, but whilst most of New Zealand will eventually be able to receive the messages, there is going to be – like there always has been – a small section of society for which this simply will not happen. Most of the people in this group will be elderly people with little or no social contact, who have not got a mobile phone and who are most likely not going to be familiar with the technology. Others will include new comers to New Zealand such as recent migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who might still be getting established, or who are established but use dumb phones. – ones that only receive basic text messages and calls.

The message will need to go out in multiple languages. Not everyone is going to understand what the emergency messages are about because of language barriers. If they do understand, they might not realize that it is just a test and not an actual emergency.

The message will also need to able to be made louder for hearing impaired, or visually improved for those with vision impairment.

But this new measure, welcome as it most certainly is, DOES NOT supercede taking action if you feel unsafe. The Civil Defence message for earthquakes where a tsunami might have been generated is still “Long and strong, GET GONE”. After a disaster has happened, there might be several hours lag time depending on the state of communications with affected areas before a warning can be issued. In the event of a near field tsunami generated just off the coast, that is too late.

So, I welcome the Civil Defence mobile test on Sunday night, but I want to see how they roll it out to other mobiles.