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What needs to change with Civil Defence after the Port Hills fire and Kaikoura earthquake? (Video)

Prime Minister Bill English is briefed by workers at the Port Hills fire command centre in Christchurch.

ANALYSIS: After the heat sparked by Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee's criticism of how the Port Hills fire was handled, Prime Minister Bill English has done his best to cool things down.

Speaking to media on Friday, English stuck to his prepared lines from the day before, saying "bureaucrats" could deal with the problems later while efforts to control the blaze continued.

"We wouldn't want any of that to take away from the amazing effort from a whole range of people there…getting on top of the fire."

However, Brownlee's outburst about "perplexing" decision-making is understandable, given his concerns about Civil Defence's structure following this week and last November's Kaikoura earthquake.

* 1400 evacuees allowed home
* A blaze of questions
Bill English downplays fire criticism
* Fixing the faults in Civil Defence

On both occasions, the public have been left wanting, with information scarce and some turning to social media for answers.

So what is it about our emergency structure that is going wrong, and what can be done to fix it?

Fire tears through homes along Worsley Road during the Port Hills blaze.

With both Kaikoura and Christchurch, the main issue was not the actual efforts on the ground - indeed, Brownlee has been quick to praise the "very brave people doing a great job" in the Port Hills, and in Kaikoura before that.

Instead, it was the flow of information that was found wanting.

Civil Defence officials released contradicting information about the number of houses lost and people evacuated, while Brownlee lamented that he got more accurate information from the media than officials in Christchurch.

Kiwi aid worker John Tipper, the director of disaster preparedness and response for Swedish NGO Operation Mercy, argues that isn't surprising, with the rapid growth of social media increasing the influence of those outside the system.


Selwyn District Mayor Sam Broughton, centre, pictured with Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee, left, and Prime Minister Bill English, right, last week.

In fact, Tipper says it's likely the best information about the fire is coming "from a student dorm somewhere in Christchurch or Wellington", rather than officials on the ground.

"Maybe you've got a frustrated homeowner standing on XYZ Rd unable to get past the police, and they tweet that, and the student who's sitting in the dorm monitoring every hashtag to do with this fire picks up on that…

"Meanwhile, the Civil Defence people on the ground are dealing with telling people you can't come in, they're dealing with media enquiries, they're dealing with the logistics of the response, and so they're torn in 20 directions."

While Tipper is quick to praise the work of local emergency officials, he says monitoring that flow of information is one area for improvement.

Former Civil Defence director John Hamilton says clear communication is critical in an emergency response.

"Civil Defence needs somebody locked in a dark room with a lot of bandwidth, monitoring every hashtag that's going around, every Facebook page, because that's how people are communicating now."

However, he warns we have been "quite conditioned to feedback that is possibly not realistic at the peak of a disaster", thanks to the real-time data in our everyday lives.

"If I'm going to travel somewhere at the moment, I flip on Google Maps and I put live traffic on to see how the traffic jams are going, and I get conditioned to having that instant feedback."

Former Civil Defence director John Hamilton, who led the national response to Christchurch's devastating February 2011 earthquake, says the challenge for officials is managing expectations, "sifting through the chaos" to provide regular public updates while acknowledging their potential shortcomings.

"This is one of those principles about how you convey to the public; 'We're onto it, we understand that it's chaotic and we don't have a full picture, we're working on it'."

Brownlee has hinted at greater centralisation of power, talking about "clarifying and simplifying the chain of command".

At present, Civil Defence is a complex web of national, regional and local teams. The Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management (MCDEM) provides strategic guidance and national co-ordination, but leaves 16 regional groups - made up of councillors - to call the shots with regional emergencies.

On top of that, individual councils still have the power to declare a state of emergency within their boundaries, while other organisations can also step in - as we saw in the Port Hills, with Selwyn's rural fire team assuming control for the initial response.

There is a case to be made for streamlining what Brownlee has called a "cumbersome" system, perhaps by moving some powers from the local authorities to MCDEM.

However, Hamilton says there is a tricky balance to be struck between having one person calling the shots and ensuring locals don't feel alienated - as he experienced first-hand after the Christchurch quake.

"It's a natural tendency to communities to...resent someone from outside coming along and taking over their response, particularly when they feel that their response is going well, and Christchurch it was going well.

"The phrase the Americans use is, God forbid that the troops get driven by somebody with a long screwdriver from Washington. So you've got to find the balance about how much delegation you can make without interfering from too far up."

While putting MCDEM in charge of everything sounds simple, Tipper says that ignores the fact that local councils and officials are accustomed to being masters of their own domain.

"The risk I think when you get down on the ground, there's still so much territorialism among the different agencies, probably often without even recognising what they're doing."


Some have asked whether we should boost our stocks of full-time Civil Defence staff, rather than relying on the enthusiastic but part-time volunteers who are deployed in the wake of an emergency.

Responding in 2012 to a review of the Christchurch earthquake response, Hamilton memorably described the difficulty of mixing professionals with amateurs as "putting a team on the rugby field who have never ever played together before".

"You've got everybody from the All Blacks to the juniors from Aranui."

He stands by those comments, but says professionalising the entire Civil Defence machinery is not a realistic solution, given the rarity of major emergencies.

"They can't do it full time because there's no work for them to do full time, because fortunately these things only come around, theoretically, once in a lifetime."

Tipper agrees, and says greater professionalism doesn't always equate to a better response.

"In the US, you've got FEMA and effectively they're a very professionalised, multi-state response, and they're never really spoken of particularly well…

"Oftentimes, what comes with extra professionalism is more people going to conferences, more people taking certificates, more and more layers of bureaucracy in the response, but the actual thing on the ground is actually made more cumbersome."


So what is the solution - if there is one?

Hamilton says local Civil Defence officials running the show have to ensure enough information is making its way up the chain so they know everything is going well, instead of leaving room for concern.

"If the information is not available to the key stakeholders higher up the organisation, they are going to question what is happening and start to suggest, in the worst case, alternatives to how the thing should be run, and that's the situation you've got to try and avoid."

Thorough training for Civil Defence volunteers is also vital, "so that when people do get confronted with it, they go, click, I know what my role is, I know how I'm going to do it and I'm prepared to knuckle down and do it".

For his part, Tipper is critical  of the tendency of officials to make "defensible decisions" - actions that may lack the boldness needed to tackle an emergency, but which will hold up well in any subsequent inquiry.

"New Zealand has impressed me very much with the on-ground response - it's more the culture."


However, he cautions against any overhaul, saying New Zealand's emergency processes hold up very well to other countries he has worked in.

"It's very easy to look no further than the borders of New Zealand and think, 'Why isn't this done better?' - actually, if you compare it to many other parts of the world, we're doing a good job of it."

What is critical is not "getting a perfect response", he says, but ensuring that the lessons from any shortcomings are absorbed

"Right now, this is not the time to be pointing fingers - it's about doing the best you can and trying to deal with it."