“Fly-in teams” of national experts will be set up within a year to help handle the response to emergencies or natural disasters, with Civil Defence Minister Kris Faafoi saying “stretched” councils will welcome the support.

The Government is also developing a business case for a new emergency management facility, and mulling the creation of a new national agency to replace the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management (MCDEM) – but has not ruled out retaining MCDEM despite stinging criticisms of its response to recent events.

The National government commissioned a review of the systems in place following confusion over tsunami warnings after 2016’s Kaikoura earthquake.

The technical advisory group’s report, released in January, highlighted unclear command and control structures, “marked variations in practice and patchy capability across the country”, and different understandings about roles, responsibilities and authority among different regional groups.

It made a suite of recommendations, including the creation of a new National Emergency Management Agency to replace MCDEM with stronger oversight of emergency responses across the country.

Responding to the report, Civil Defence Minister Kris Faafoi said the risks to New Zealand were changing, so the response system also needed to adapt.

New agency or MCDEM?

The Government has agreed in principle to the creation of a new agency, saying “greater nationwide consistency and stronger, directive national leadership” is needed to handle emergency management.

However, it has kept the door open to retaining MCDEM, saying either it or a new national agency could take on that leadership role. It has asked for more work to be done on “the best functions, form, and location of the national emergency management agency”.

Faafoi said it was “early days” to make a call on whether a new agency was necessary, or whether the ministry could be improved through changes to its policies and procedures.

“We’re going to have to do a lot more, kind of, graft before we know what the entity is – whether it’s a beefed-up ministry or whether it’s a new agency.”

Kris Faafoi and a sign language interpreter address media in the “no longer fit for purpose” bunker beneath the Beehive. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

A detailed business case is also being developed for a new national emergency management facility to replace the existing “bunker” at Parliament, described in the technical group’s report as “outmoded and no longer fit for purpose”.

“After three or four days, the local groups start getting pretty stretched, so [we need] to make sure there is support from government and other groups which happen on an ad hoc basis at the moment.”

It has agreed to set up national teams of experts in emergency management, strategic communications and science to be set up on a “fly-in” roster – a recommendation which was also made following the 2010 and 2011 Canterbury earthquakes.

Faafoi said the Government would provide $5.2 million in funding for the teams, four in total made up of nine people each.

The fly-in teams would not override the control of local and regional authorities, but provide them support as needed.

“After three or four days, the local groups start getting pretty stretched, so [we need] to make sure there is support from Government and other groups which happen on an ad hoc basis at the moment…

“Fly-in teams are there to support – they don’t go in and take over, we’ve made that point very clear to civil defence groups around the country who have asked that question too.”

‘Civil defence’ out, ’emergency management’ in

The Government’s official response said it had also decided to “retire” the use of the term “civil defence” in favour of “emergency management” in the future, saying the former term was outdated and did not reflect the broader nature of the emergency management sector.

However, Faafoi appeared to walk that back, saying it was only a possibility if a new agency was to be set up.

“I want to make sure the system is fit for purpose…we’re not there yet [regarding a name change].”

Faafoi said there would also be changes to the layers of national, regional and local responsibility for emergency responses.

The Government would amend the CDEM Act to give regional groups, made up of local authorities in an area, and the individual councils “clear and separate responsibilities”.

Faafoi said he wanted to ensure there was “no wriggle room” for interpretation of who would call the shots in an emergency situation.

Mayors would be given the responsibility to declare a state of local emergency in their district or wards, while a regional group appointee will be charged with the same role for the region as a whole or more than one district.

Faafoi said he wanted to ensure there was “no wriggle room” for interpretation of who would call the shots in an emergency situation.

The Government will also develop regulations to establish minimum standards for the groups, “with appropriate penalties for non-compliance”.

All civil defence controllers will be required to meet a national standard of technical and personal competency.

While the aim is for only accredited controllers to be able to act during an emergency, the Government may build in a transition period, saying: “The transition to a professional emergency management workforce will need to be carefully managed to ensure that current capacity, both paid and volunteer, is retained.”

However, mayors will not be required to receive training before having the power to declare an emergency, with the Government saying it would be too difficult to define training, implement it and monitor compliance.

Local government costs

One of the issues with the reforms is the extra cost of compliance, with a Cabinet committee paper noting there would likely be additional costs for local councils and some government agencies to meet the new workforce standards.

Faafoi said the issue of funding was “horses for courses”, with many regional groups already funding and carrying out their own training.

“If there were cases where there were particular regions or councils where they were struggling to do that, one example being the Chatham Islands, we would have those discussions.”

LGNZ President and Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull said the organisation was happy with the Government’s response, which maintained local responsibility for responding to emergencies.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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