NZ needs a new emergency agency: report

A new national agency with beefed-up powers should be set up to better handle New Zealand’s response to emergencies and natural disasters, a sweeping review of Civil Defence has recommended.

The Government and local councils have welcomed the release of the long-awaited report, although warned there is still work to be done around the costs and structure of the proposals.

Under the last government, Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee commissioned a review of the systems in place following confusion over tsunami warnings after 2016’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 (MCDEM)] needs to be looked at.”

The technical advisory group’s report, released on Thursday afternoon by new Civil Defence Minister Kris Faafoi, has backed that up with a recommendation that a new National Emergency Management Agency be created to replace MCDEM, with stronger oversight of emergency responses across the country.

While MCDEM’s emphasis on guidance and relationships with regional Civil Defence groups rather than “prescriptive or directive powers” had been appropriate and pragmatic, the report says that has led to wide variations in practice and performance across the country - as well as an unclear “command, control and coordination authority” across different agencies during emergencies.

“As one submitter noted, ‘Wellington is good at writing guidelines and [groups] are good at ignoring them’.”

The report says the new agency should proactively provide national coordination and support in local emergencies, exert national control in national emergencies, and lift the overall performance of emergency management teams by setting and enforcing national standards.

The report highlights “marked variations in practice and patchy capability across the country”, as well as different understandings about roles, responsibilities and authority among different regional groups.

While restructuring MCDEM would do little to change focus and culture, the report says establishing a new agency “would provide greater autonomy, transparency, and status for the emergency management role”.

It says local and regional councils should still have a role in emergency responses, arguing suggestions for a sole Civil Defence organisation across all of New Zealand cut against “the principle that local communities are best served by people who know them and their local issues”.

The report highlights “marked variations in practice and patchy capability across the country”, as well as different understandings about roles, responsibilities and authority among different regional groups, and says there needs to be far greater professionalisation of emergency management roles.

“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.”

The report recommends that all staff in emergency management roles meet national standards for professional development and training, with national accreditation for “key roles” like Civil Defence controllers.

It also supports a previous recommendation, in the review of the CDEM response to the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake, that a “cadre” of professionals be established so they can be sent to major emergencies as needed, supporting local teams.

“Our findings indicate that this ‘fly-in team’ is a much needed resource that would provide assurance - to the public and to the government.”

The report is also critical of the current National Crisis Management Centre (NCMC), known as the Beehive “Bunker”, described it as “outmoded and no longer fit-for-purpose”.

“Its physical layout alone inhibits working together with appropriate technology to achieve a common operating picture [and] it is difficult for staff to connect to their work IT systems.”

It says a new, “fit-for-future” facility should be created, with technological links to other agencies such as police, the Defence Force, and the Ministry of Health.

While it notes some support for a “centralised, staffed multi-agency, 24/7 operating centre” for monitoring, alerting and warnings, the report says there needs to be “a robust assessment of needs and costs to justify such an investment”.

System must be patched up - Govt

Faafoi said it was too early for the Government to reject or commit to most of the recommendations, but believed the suggestions around professionalising the Civil Defence process had merit.

“The system as it is now means there have been some patches as the report puts it, and the responsibility is on us is if there are patches, that they are patched up and there is an appropriate level of skill and competency.”

The Government would need to take time to consider the time and cost needed to develop of some of the “big-ticket items”, such as a new agency or emergency management centre, while the current bunker had “stood up pretty well” during recent events.

“One of the first things I asked when I became the minister and was handed this report was, ‘Is it up to it?’, and they were confident that it was still up to the test and will continue to be, but there’s an opportunity with this report to look at whether we can modernise it.”

Faafoi said the Government would take between three and four months consulting on the recommendations and considering any necessary law changes. While there were some “low-hanging fruit” that could be implemented, he would not say what those were.

"The cost of good training and reaching a certain standard should not be seen as a cost - it should be seen as an investment, and frankly the lack of it will cost a lot more.”

Local Government New Zealand president and Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull said local councils supported the review’s recommendations, which would help to strengthen and better coordinate the response to emergencies at both a local and national level.

“Historically we haven’t done too badly, but on the other hand we’ve been facing a multitude of risks here: in the last two or three years we’ve had all kinds of natural disasters, and it’s the right time to look at it and say, could we do better?”

Cull acknowledged there would need to be work done to determine the split of costs between a local and central level, but said it would be worth paying for the increased professionalisation of Civil Defence workers.

“I would note that the cost of good training and reaching a certain standard should not be seen as a cost - it should be seen as an investment, and frankly the lack of it will cost a lot more.”

Cull said it was “reassuring” that the group had recommended against putting all Civil Defence powers in the hands of a single organisation, noting the value of local control with reinforcement from central government.

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