Auckland Council is sending a civil defence plan out for public feedback over the next month as it attempts to improve its reaction to emergency events.
The draft plan follows a review from former police commissioner Mike Bush which found the council’s emergency management system was ill-prepared for the January floods.
But while councillors on the civil defence committee approved the plan for public consultation, concerns remained about clarity of responsibility during emergency events.
Mayor Wayne Brown said he had been “fairly heavily caned” following the January event, when many considered his communication during the unfolding emergency inadequate.
Brown has said communication breakdowns from other parts of the organisation had left him in the dark, including crucial emails being sent to a staffer also called Wayne Brown.
But whomever’s feet the responsibility can ultimately be laid at, Brown bore the brunt of the blame, with almost 30,000 signatures on a petition calling on him to step down and a critical response from the media.
“I got a fair whacking for this,” he told the committee. “So you can’t blame me for having an interest in it.”
That interest is in making sure the operating procedures around who informs whom when an emergency happens are crystal clear.
He claimed that at the time it was the council chief executive’s responsibility to make sure he was in the know about the rising waters. Brown said then-chief executive Jim Stabback had gone home early that Friday, so the system fell over.
“So how do I know that next time it rains I’m not going to look like a lost cause for not knowing what’s going on?” he asked staff from Auckland Emergency Management (AEM). “Because I don’t tend to be watching my emails and I’m not permanently in front of the TV either.”
He wanted convincing that somewhere in the document was the promise he wouldn’t come under the same fire as last time.
AEM general manager Paul Amaral told the mayor the communication gap had been filled by an elected member liaison.
But Brown remained mostly unconvinced that the draft plan lays out his communication channels, roles and responsibilities in a crisis plainly enough for him.
The plan says the role of the Auckland mayor in a civil defence emergency is to provide overall vision, leadership and guidance to the region, act as an ex oficio member of the emergency management committee with statutory responsibilities.
“I can’t do much leadership and guidance if I haven’t been told what’s happening out there in the field, because I’m not there all the time, oddly enough,” Brown said. “Having got severely caned to the point of having petitions against me, I want to make sure that I’ve got this right.”
He also questioned AEM’s media reach, having received complaints from some outlets on the night of the flooding that they hadn’t been told about important press conferences.
Amaral said that comes under operational documents, while this plan is more about the high-level five-year strategy for Auckland’s civil defence.
Brown and several other councillors questioned why the operational documents weren’t going up for public consultation at the same time, or at least been given to councillors.
“I was looking for operation because that’s what people do when things turn to shit and they want to know what’s happening,” Brown said. “I need a really clear guidance on what my role is, because sometimes – I know what my responsibilities are, and they get shoved down my throat fairly well – but my role under those circumstances was a bit unclear.”
Waitematā and Gulf councillor Mike Lee questioned why AEM was bringing strategic documents to consultation rather than updating standard operating procedure.
“Surely the day-to-day operational component is a priority? I mean we could have another emergency tomorrow … we’ve got a strategy but we’re still working on an operations plan?”
Amaral told Lee the operational procedure was also being reworked following recommendations in the Bush review.
Bush singled out speed of communication as an area the council could have improved on during the January event, when it took hours for Brown to declare a state of emergency.
Communication was also revealed to be something of a problem amongst the committee itself. Namely, the chain of command for declaring a state of emergency begins with the mayor. If he is on leave or out of town, this goes to Deputy Mayor Desley Simpson, and then on to the chair of the civil defence committee, Howick councillor and committee chair Sharon Stewart.
However, Stewart revealed that Auckland may have been flying blind at some point over the past few weeks, where communication lapses meant she’d been on watch duty without even knowing it.
“Communication is really important and something that I think we failed at once again,” she said. “Over the school holiday break the mayor and the deputy mayor were actually out of the country and I didn’t know, and being the chair I would be the next person that would have to sign a declaration.”
Brown countered by saying he was “only a phone call away” and could have been reached in the event of an emergency.
“You can’t be where every volcano is going to break up, you don’t know where it’s going to happen,” he said. “I’ll give you a guess though.”
The civil defence plan will be translated into eight languages and put in front of Aucklanders online, at libraries and at service centres for a month from Monday.
It identifies the risk level of a range of emergency events in the city, with high-risk events including earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, thunderstorms and pandemics, and low-risk events including civil unrest, terrorism and mass transport accidents.
Stewart wrote in her foreword to the plan that it would result in “tangible improvements to the functioning of civil defence emergency management in Tāmaki Makaurau”.
The plan sets out Auckland’s civil defence strategy as focusing on the four key aspects of reducing the impact of events, readying communities, taking action when events occur, and ensuring a good recovery.
The more than 100-page document sets out who takes the lead in different emergency events and what powers they are afforded.
Research from December 2022 found only 62 percent of Aucklanders feel they are prepared for an emergency.
In the eight months since then, the country has seen its fair share of natural disasters.
The public response to this plan may show just how large these events are looming in the minds of Aucklanders.