Is Civil Defence really in control of the Christchurch fires?

Photo credit @markhannahphoto

OPINION: Despite plenty of opportunities to refine its operation, thanks to recent earthquakes and tsunami warnings, New Zealand's Civil Defence organisation has again been found badly wanting over the disastrous fires on Christchurch's Port Hills.

The worst bungle came on Wednesday night when Civil Defence informed the media that around 40 houses had been burnt down by the wild fires:

Is Civil Defence really in control of the Christchurch fires?

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. In reality no more than eight houses had been destroyed at that stage.

An hour later Civil Defence claimed that only "two or three" additional houses had been engulfed. 

What's the public to do - and who should they believe - when even Civil Defence gets vital information hopelessly wrong.   

Even Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel was sucked in, telling media that the fire had torched "dozens" of properties.

The Christchurch City Council now claims that 11 houses have been destroyed.

Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee even admitted on Thursday he was getting the most accurate information on the Christchurch fires from the media - and not his own department.

So why is the information being released to the media been so incorrect?

It took until late yesterday for Civil Defence to declare a state of emergency in both the Selwyn and Christchurch Districts - many people claim this took far too long.

Mr Brownlee was publicly scathing of his own department's reaction to the fires - calling it "not crisp enough".

It's not as if New Zealand Civil Defence hasn't had plenty of practice handling state of emergencies: They've declared more than 30 of them in the past 15 years for events such as earthquakes, floods, landslides, cyclones and even a tornado.

According to Civil Defence's own website the last state of emergency declared was in the Hastings district for that region's fires three days ago - not Christchurch.

In fact Civil Defence has a 17-page guide on what constitutes a state of emergency and how to declare one. 

Maybe that's why it took them so long to declare one this week - some poor boffin had to read it from cover to cover.

What does a state of emergency actually mean?

Declaring a state of emergency triggers stronger legal powers to clear roads and public places, secure dangerous structures, set up first aid posts and to prohibit land, air and water traffic.

The whole idea of declaring one is to provide the controllers with extraordinary powers to deliver an "effective and swift response" to a disaster.  Not that it seemed very 'swift' this week.

Social media has become a vital source of information for many New Zealanders, yet the official Civil Defence twitter account had only sent out two tweets in 17 hours.

The ChristchurchCDEM account has been a touch busier, firing out tweets with important information every couple of hours or so since the state of emergency was declared.

The Christchurch City Council account has also been sporadically sending out tweets and updating its Facebook page.

A multi-organisation front can cause confusion and actually exacerbate an emergency situation. Following the Kaikoura quakes last year, the West Coast Regional Council issued media a release warning of an imminent earthquake along the South Island's Alpine Fault.

In it, the council's public information manager Andy Thompson claimed there was a heightened risk of a large aftershock along the fault because of the previous week's 7.8 shake near Kaikoura.

It asked West Coasters to "stock up on food, water and medicine, enough for up to seven days", which many did that evening.

The "urgent update" was retracted only hours later with an apology, and the West Coast Regional Council came under much criticism from Civil Defence.

Organisations blaming other organisations - sound familiar?

Civil Defence had come under severe criticism immediately after the Kaikoura earthquake - issuing no tsunami warning, but then doing so 55 minutes later. 

A two metre-high tsunami had already hit the Kaikoura coast by then.

It's inevitable that there will be another major earthquake, flood or possible tsunami in New Zealand in the weeks, months or years to come.

So it's high time for less bureaucracy  and more open and honest communication. Civil Defence does not want the blood of New Zealanders on its hands.

Who can the public trust in times of national emergency? 

At the moment it's the media.


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