The 6th anniversary this week of Christchurch’s devastating earthquake, and the horrific fires that have been fringing the city in recent days are timely reminders of the vulnerability we have to natural disasters.
One extraordinary constant at times like this is the dedication and commitment of all our emergency services personnel – our firefighters, ambulance officers, civil defence, Police and all those who pitch in to help. They are overwhelmingly volunteers, giving of their time and expertise to help others in a serious situation. They deserve our eternal thanks and gratitude for what they do.
But thanks and gratitude alone are not enough, and no basis on which to build viable emergency services for the future. We need to ensure that our volunteers and career emergency staff are equally well trained and resourced to meet the challenges varying natural disasters are likely to throw upon us in the years to come.
Inevitably, there will be some form of overall inquiry into the Christchurch fire. After the earthquakes, a special Royal Commission was established to review all aspects of the earthquake, including response and recovery performances, and to make recommendations for future improvements. The Fire Service has already advised it will be carrying out its own operational review of its performance in the fires, and there have been many calls for an independent investigation of the overall civil defence response. Such inquiries need to be seen as steps towards learning lessons and improving performance, rather than blame-chasing witch-hunts.
Civil Defence has been the poor relation for too long. Even though there has been a national Ministry of Emergency Management, it has been pitched uncomfortably for too long between central and local government, with no-one too sure where responsibility really lies, as a consequence. There are some notable exceptions – Wellington’s Emergency Management Office, which does a fantastic job promoting community resilience and safety, comes to mind – but for too many, the image of men with clip boards is still too prevalent.
My own experience as Minister of Internal Affairs bringing together our new national Fire and Emergency New Zealand from 1 July this year has been instructive. My personal view, not necessarily that of the Government at this stage, is that the move to Fire and Emergency New Zealand presages a model that will become the overall response to civil defence in the future. Over time – years rather than months – I see Fire and Emergency New Zealand being expanded to include civil defence, and in a little longer time frame, potentially ambulance services as well. Already, as the Christchurch fires, and before them the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes have shown, the current Fire Service is being looked towards to provide the response leadership in such cases, so it seems to be only logical in time that the new national Fire and Emergency New Zealand, once properly established, will be expanded to also include wider aspects of civil defence and emergency response.
One of the great strengths of our society is that in times of travail we all pitch in to help, often with secondary regard to our own circumstances. That is the spirit we need to capture when it comes to the future of civil defence and emergency management. This is not about developing the large “standing army” some are fearful and so scornful of, nor is it about building empires. Much more pragmatically, it is much more about ensuring that our communities are at all times best placed to protect themselves.