UNITED FIRE BRIGADES ASSOCIATION ANNUAL CONFERENCEInternal Affairs
Mr President, distinguished guests and delegates to this conference, thank you for this opportunity to speak to you.
Since becoming Minister of Internal Affairs I have taken a keen interest in Fire Service matters. One thing that has really been impressed on me is the important role of volunteers in the Fire Service.
I have long been impressed by the efforts made by volunteer fire-fighters on behalf of their communities. I am aware from what happens in parts of West Auckland where I come from that volunteer fire-fighters are often the backbone of the community. Not only do they put out fires and do the other things one would expect fire-fighters to do, they also raise money for the playcentre, the school, the local hall, or whatever else money needs raising for.
I suppose that makes you part of the social fabric of New Zealand, helping to hold things together in ways that many either aren't aware of or take for granted.
I understand that at your conference last year Hon Paul East outlined where the then Government was heading on the Emergency Services Review. I think it is probably appropriate that I now outline where things have got to and what my particular perspective is on the review.
Last September the previous Cabinet agreed to certain principles about an overarching emergency management framework. Officials were then required to go out and consult on those principles and the way it was anticipated emergency management would be organised.
The next step is for the officials to report back on those consultations. The Government will then make decisions after considering the officials report. What I obviously can't tell you is what sort of decisions we'll be making. We haven't quite got to that point yet.
I think , however, the need for some change in the way our responses to emergencies are managed is well understood. There have been endless reports on the adequacy of New Zealand's emergency management regime. They date back to at least 1991 with the Law Commission Report on Emergencies, followed by the 1992 Civil Defence Review Panel Report, then the Emergency Services Review Task Force Report, and Ian McLean's "Review of Disaster Recovery Preparedness" and lastly the Controller and Auditor-General's Report on "Funding the Restoration of Essential Community services Following Natural Disasters". We seem to have the issue covered from all angles in that little list.
What I think it all boils down to are quite practical questions like "how would we cope if a Kobe scale earthquake hit Wellington?". I think the answer would have to be "not very well". Despite that there is probably an unrealistically high public expectation about the level of assistance that could be provided in such an emergency.
What has been identified by the officials in considering this problem is -
a need for better strategic co-ordination in day to day handling of accidents and incidents:
a need for most emergencies to be handled at the local level using better co-ordinated local resources and expertise rather than relying on central government:
an enhanced ability to deal with an emergency the scale of a Kobe type earthquake.
To help advance these objectives the officials have proposed a set of general directions and principles for change.
Perhaps the most central one is the recommendation that there be a "Ministry for Emergency Management" established to replace the Ministry of Civil Defence and to provide a new overarching policy role for the emergency services sector.
There are other principles and recommendations that take us a bit further in dealing with emergencies on a sound basis. I won't go through them all as there are quite a few of them. There are, however, some important ones which are very relevant to your organisation and which I want to mention to highlight the fact that the emergency Services Review is not just some high level exercise about policy and planning. It is about practical solutions to dealing with risks that communities face from natural or other disaster.
One principle is the "recognition and involvement of volunteer organisations". One recommendation is that there be "agreement that both routine and emergency events are generally local in nature and are most efficiently and effectively dealt with locally".
In relation to this last recommendation it was agreed in principle by the previous cabinet that planning how to respond to significant emergencies would be the responsibility of local Emergency Management Groups. They would be responsible for co-ordinating preparedness to respond to emergencies, for example by compiling and maintaining registers of community resources available in emergencies. They would also be responsible co-ordinating mitigation, response and recovery bringing together roles currently carried out, or partially done, or possibly in some cases not done by a variety of agencies under different sets of responsibility.
When your President met with me a couple of weeks ago he impressed on me the importance of the Emergency Services Review not downgrading the volunteer component of the Fire Service.
I can assure you that will not happen. We would be doing ourselves as well you a disservice if there was any down-grading of the volunteer contribution. Quite frankly, if it were not for volunteers large parts of New Zealand wouldnt have much of an emergency service to speak of. In many areas volunteer fire-fighters, search and rescue and whoever else is to hand are the emergency services. This highlights one of the earlier points I made about volunteers forming part of the backbone of the community.
I understand that at some of the briefings given by officials and in other discussions concern has been expressed by voluntary organisations about the possible implications of changes for volunteers. For example, "what are the implications of one of the other principles -comprehensive emergency management?."
This related particularly to the relative importance of the four phases of mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.
Does this mean for instance that volunteer members of response organisations such as the Fire Service will be expected to spend equal time on mitigation and preparedness activities such as public education and awareness programmes as opposed to the more traditional and practical role of responding to emergencies?
This I think is a question the UFBA and the Fire Service will have to work out. It is possible that some volunteer groups can maintain their traditional response focus. I am sure that you will not be required to become involved in activities you are not comfortable with. However, you may like to think about the benefits communities may receive from adopting some or all of the "comprehensive emergency management" approach.
Once again thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today. Again I commend you for the contribution you make to the community. Keep up the good work.