New emergency agency coming this year

New Zealand will have a new national emergency management agency by the end of the year, Civil Defence Minister Kris Faafoi has confirmed.

The Government’s decision implements the main recommendation of a technical advisory group (TAG) report released last year, which outlined concerns with the country’s current emergency management systems including the role of the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management (MCDEM).

The report recommended the creation of a new National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), with stronger oversight of emergency responses and the ability to set and enforce national standards for local and regional teams.

When the Government responded to the report last August, Faafoi said it was undecided on whether to create a new agency or keep a “beefed-up” MCDEM - but it has now confirmed the former approach is best.

Speaking to Newsroom this week, the minister said he had “taken a lot of sway” from the recommendations of the TAG report and a 2012 review which followed the Christchurch earthquakes.

“Setting up the new agency ... we think is probably for what we hope to achieve in terms of the long-term objectives of strong national leadership and pushing for standards etc through the rest of the emergency management system, that was probably the way to go.”

The role of Civil Defence in the response to the Christchurch terror attack had also shown the value of a central government agency which could help to coordinate an emergency response.

Faafoi said setting up NEMA as a departmental agency would provide a greater degree of independence, while remaining “within easy reach” of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet - the current home of the MCDEM business unit, and the agency best placed to play a leadership role with the public service during an emergency.

Civil Defence Minister Kris Faafoi says the new emergency management agency will require some rescoping of jobs, but there will be a number of new roles given the expanded role. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Faafoi said there would be “a bit of rescoping of jobs” for NEMA, although there would also be new opportunities at the agency for current MCDEM staff given its expanded role.

“I acknowledge it can be an unsettling time for staff, but when you start a new agency and you commit to more functions than the ministry does now, I see some opportunities there for them.”

He believed there was enough interest and expertise in CDEM groups around the country to fill the new roles that would be created, while any gaps could be filled through overseas recruitment.

Last month’s Budget had allocated $3 million a year for NEMA’s establishment and a further $1.5m annually to improve the resilience of the National Crisis Management Centre, but Faafoi acknowledged the new agency’s operating budget would also need to increase to match its new powers and responsibilities.

However, officials would need to determine the level of staffing needed for NEMA and the full scope of its work before the Government could make future budget decisions and determine the likely cost.

“I don’t necessarily want the fundamental changes that we know are coming out of the TAG be slowed down by anything else, because I think we know we need to get those done."

While the new agency should be set up through an Order in Council before the end of the year, Faafoi said there would be a transition process as the emergency management function moved from MCDEM to NEMA.

The Government was working on legislation in response to the TAG report’s recommendations, which included giving regional CDEM groups and local councils “clear and separate responsibilities”.

It was possible that the law changes could be tweaked to reflect lessons from the response to the Christchurch attacks, although that had to be balanced against the desire to move quickly. 

“I don’t necessarily want the fundamental changes that we know are coming out of the TAG review ... to be slowed down by anything else, because I think we know we need to get those done - if we can try and get those through this term I think that would be a good outcome.”

Faafoi said the fly-in teams announced last year would be up and running in August, with most of the staff having been hired and undergone intensive training but their specialist equipment still being procured.

MCDEM under microscope

MCDEM’s performance has come under scrutiny again this month, after it sent out a tsunami warning following a magnitude-7.0 earthquake near the Kermadec Islands - only to retract the warning eight minutes later.

Faafoi said he was still confident in the ministry, but had called in both it and GNS Science the day after the quake to discuss what had happened and express his desire for improved communication with the public.

“Those situations are always fluid, I think they’ve got to act on the information they are getting at the time, and in that instance they did, but I think the comms could have been a little bit clearer…

“Let’s be blunt, there have been a few issues in the past so I think we always need to maintain a very close eye on how we’re communicating with the public and that it’s clear, concise and understandable.

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