• Jack Elder
Civil Defence

It gives me very great pleasure to welcome you all here today to this national forum and to be able to thank you personally for the contribution you are making towards a safer society.

My attendance here today is a clear indication of the government ?s positive commitment to provide for the safety and security of all people living in this country.

The new emergency management framework must be a partnership between central and local government if it is to be successful. I have been most encouraged by the feedback John Norton has been giving me on how areas are prepared to co-operate.

There are many challenges ahead for all involved in the emergency management sector and it cannot happen without the goodwill and professional commitment of people such as yourselves.

The new system will provide the basic infrastructure New Zealand needs. At local level it will deal with local problems, the low-level type of emergency such as floods.

The real concern I have always had is the ability of Civil Defence to deal with a major catastrophe.

For a whole variety of reasons we have some capability ? armed forces which can be mobilised; we have a very efficient, effective police force which is capable of very careful planning and working on detailed procedures, and very disciplined.

We have access to some of the very important things we need in major emergencies such as earthquakes. But I have always had some concerns about being able to respond effectively to say a major earthquake in Wellington.

For that reason there are a few areas I want to concentrate on as Minister. The first is that as a society we should front up to some basic decisions. In the event of a major catastrophe what is the first priority? The first priority to me, if you put it to people clearly, must always be protecting children.

And that is why we must do more to ensure, particularly when children are away from parents, and that usually means when they?re at school, that we have contingency plans and the capability to protect them until their parents can make contact with them.

So you can understand my concern at reports of a significant number of Wellington schools failing to meet civil defence emergency standards.

Wellington City Council emergency management adviser Steven Jensen has spent four years visiting most of Wellingtons 45 primary schools and has found that while they have written plans about how to deal with an earthquake, they have often ignored the practical side of being prepared.

Large heavy equipment such as computers and shelves not tied down, that sort of thing.

And it?s not just in Wellington. The Education Review Office includes emergency preparedness in its check list when reviewing schools. And it?s not an encouraging find.

But I don?t need to tell you it?s not only schools which fall short. I bet you most homes, and enterprises pay lip service to the need to be prepared.

So there?s a continuing challenge for all of us to spread the message.

The other things that we may lack is the specialised knowledge and equipment that may be required in an area like Wellington to, for instance, rescue people caught in a major building collapse.

The Civil Defence organisation has gone some way down the path of developing relationships particularly with Australia to ensure we get some of that capability. I think we need to look further than that. I think it is very wise and good insurance if we look to establish a network of international relationships.

There must be things in New Zealand that we are good at to help others with and there certainly are things that others can help us with. And I think that sort of attitude will stand us in good stead.

If we can be proactive in going out and making contact, establishing bi-lateral and multilateral relationships with other jurisdictions who may have similar sorts of problems, Japan for instance, the USA with its vast experience of natural catastrophes and its huge capability, and get their technical knowledge then I think that is something that could be to New Zealand?s great advantage. And I?m sure we could help them in ways too. We are if you like a test bed for a number of things they might be interested in.

Public awareness is low. That is to be regretted and we have to work to raise it, but the sad fact of life is that it is the nature of humans and catastrophes and natural disasters that people tend not to think about them very hard until they happen.

The exception I would make to that to some extent is the concern of Wellingtonians to earthquakes and things related to that. I have seldom been amongst people who?re so aware of the natural hazards that face them.

Although some communities are also aware of flooding; they tend to be communities which have been flooded frequently.

The experience unfortunately tends to be the most effective teacher in that regard.

It?s akin to pushing water up hill but you know you have to do it and it?s a matter of finding what are the best ways of doing it.

I believe that in conjunction with protecting children, we must educate the children themselves. I think if we are really serious about getting to adults one of the most effective ways is getting to them through children.

While we are heading for a different organisation with the new structure it will in many ways be better than the old because we will have more clearly defined areas of responsibility.

Along with that we will have the ability to better identify what are the real areas that need dealing with.

For instance, it?s only in recent years the true importance of the Lifelines Project and what it entails has become apparent to many people. The critical importance of the major services of electricity, communications, roads, sewage and all the other things which in the end are essential ingredients of civilisation.

I am always very impressed with the preparedness of volunteers who sacrifice their time to help out in this way. It?s actually a very impressive characteristic of New Zealanders. We couldn?t do without them.

It?s very interesting that emergency services of different sorts, be it surf lifesaving, sea rescue, mountain rescue are usually, almost entirely, staffed by volunteers and they do it very well.

I think we want to preserve that. From my observation it?s far too easy for people to hand things over to professionals thinking that the problem?s taken care of.

And it?s as though people can wash their hands of their responsibility.And once communities start doing that they lose contact with the problem. I think the voluntary input actually has its own special strengths because by its nature it involves people in the community which is a good thing. You can?t leave it just to the professionals.Many of you will be only too well aware of how reliant you are on volunteers. They are the cornerstone of Civil Defence.

Without the community having pre-planned there wouldn?t be a civil defence.

A range of skill sets are targeted. The younger, agile and physically fit people with initiative, the first to be called on in an emergency; tradespeople who?re able to rebuild after an emergency; professional people with good organisation and communication skills, commonsense and logic.

But people who don?t fall into the above can?t be overlooked because they are the support network for family, neighbours and other volunteers. The primary aim for volunteers is to be the eyes and ears of the Civil Defence Centre and for individuals and the community to be prepared.

I don?t see any immediate concerns. However there is a note of caution in that Task Force Report which everybody needs to take note of. And that is, no matter how well you plan, no matter how well you think you have got yourself covered, something can still go wrong.

Although the report doesn?t say this, I think the reason for that is we live in a society where nothing exists on its own. Everything is inter-related and it only takes a small subsidiary part or service of any one of the major services to break down and that can cause a ripple effect right through other systems.

So we need to take all possible steps to ensure that we?ve got everything covered.

Having said that, things can still go wrong. So at critical points along the time path we need to have emergency services on alert and effectively prepared for duty.

It?s a very sound recommendation of the Task Force.

The Y2K report indicates that that system is independent and can almost certainly be relied on but we need to go over that with a fine tooth comb.

I have been very impressed with your professionalism and the efficient way you have been dealing with what has been a major change in Civil Defence in New Zealand.

Unlike other organisations for which I have had responsibility you have almost invariably got on with the job, not complained, have not gone public and voiced your views on problems.

You have stuck to the rules and made your views known where it counts.And for that I congratulate you and thank you.

May you have a productive and enjoyable conference.