Alan Pearce: Preparation best defence

By Feature by Jo-Marie Baker

I have recurring nightmares about tsunamis. Since 2004 when Indonesia was swamped by a wall of water on Boxing Day, I've replayed those chilling images over and over again in my subconscious mind.
And having been glued to the television watching Christchurch, then Japan, battle their own worst-case scenarios, I was keen to seek reassurance from the man in charge of Civil Defence here in the Bay.
But unlike me, Alan Pearce says he doesn't lie awake at night worrying about "what ifs".
"If I had a nightmare, it would be that an event overtook us before we could do anything about it. If we don't have a high level of preparedness as individuals, families or as a community, then we can't expect to come out of it at the other end."
As operations manager for the Tauranga Western Bay Emergency Management Group, Pearce's job is to help mitigate risk in the region, ensure it's well prepared, respond to an emergency and help clean up afterwards.
His slim-line Nokia cellphone, carried with him at all times, is never switched off.
The protective film covering his cellphone's screen is dog-eared in one corner - testimony to how many times a day it beeps with nationwide weather warnings, tsunami alerts and earthquake information.
"If I'm mowing the lawns, I have to ensure it's checked on a regular basis because I can't hear it. I refuse to take it into the shower with me and I won't speak to anyone on the toilet so those are about the only times I leave it with someone else to monitor."
Be realistic about the fears

Pearce says it's normal to be afraid of what nature can do and he watched recent events unfold with the same trepidation as the rest of us.

"It's natural to fear. What is not natural is to ignore risk. We know about them but we tend not to do a lot. Persuading people to be realistic about the fears they hold is part of my job because there's always something we can do."
I tell Pearce how Christchurch's first big quake last September finally prompted me to put an emergency survival kit together.
He nods his head and says it's terrible that it takes "a bloody tragedy somewhere" to force people to take action. But that, it seems, is exactly what it does take.
Bay residents have been calling Pearce on a daily basis asking where they can buy an emergency kit and berating him for the lack of tsunami sirens along our coastline.
Sirens are a controversial topic that he won't discuss publicly as it's up to local politicians to decide what alert system to put in place. But he does believe more national responsibility needs to be taken to co-ordinate warnings of large-scale events such as tsunamis.
"I don't think this country can afford to have an extensive high-tech warning system in place like Japan does, especially in the current financial situation. But, yes, we can do better."
And Pearce tells people it's a waste of money buying ready-made emergency survival kits as you can assemble your own for a fraction of the price. Canned food, clean water and warm shelter are all you need.
At home on his Katikati avocado orchard, he and his wife, Kerrie, have about a fortnight's stock of canned food, two 20-litre containers of water, camping equipment, gas barbecue and a small first-aid kit.
Enough to survive for three days

"Traditionally, I've always been a bit of a storer. I was brought up to only go grocery shopping once a fortnight whereas most people these days visit the supermarket several times a week. They simply haven't got enough food in their cupboards if an emergency happens."
Civil Defence recommends having enough items on hand to survive for three days if necessary. Pearce reckons a minimum of one week is better. "If you want to be comfortable in an emergency, prepare for it. Put stuff aside."
The only natural disaster the 58-year-old has experienced first-hand is flooding. But, during his former career as a police detective, he has dealt with many tough situations.
He was on the police front line during the 1981 Springbok tour and has been involved in 20-odd homicide inquiries over the years, including some high-profile cases such as Karla Cardno and Matapihi's own Judith Yorke murder mystery that remains unsolved.
I'm not surprised to learn that Pearce was a cop. He talks like one - in that slow, deliberate, careful manner which I've come to assume is drilled into all new police recruits.
His father was a policeman and Pearce's experiences have certainly shaped his view on life. He tells me about coming home from a fatal fire in Taita Bay years ago where two children died and immediately showing his then 3-year-old son, Scott, and 2-year-old daughter, Sarah, how to get out of their house alive.
"From then on, my kids did a fire drill two or three times a year to the point that they could get out of a window blindfolded. To them, it was a game but as a father I was reassured they could do the same in a fire."
Former Detective Sergeant John Bermingham, who was in charge of Tauranga Police Station from 1972-1982, helped mentor Pearce during his early career and describes him as dedicated and meticulous.
"He was very thorough in what he did and always gave a lot of thought and 100 per cent of himself to the job at hand. He's good at assessing a situation as to the seriousness of it and deciding what needs to be done."
Do things in a positive way

So the perfect person for a top Civil Defence role then? "Absolutely. He's a good planner but can also work off the cuff. Civil Defence has really got a good man with him being there because of the way he operates."
Pearce says locking up violent offenders was always satisfying but he left the force in 1997 after becoming disillusioned with police administration and the lack of resources.
After a short stint training security guards, he applied for a job as a Civil Defence training officer. "It grabbed my interest because, unlike the police, where you dealt with elements of negativity, here was an opportunity to work in the public sector and get people to do things in a positive way."
Pearce worked under the previous Bay Civil Defence operations manager, Barry Low, during the May 2005 floods in Tauranga and subsequently took over the top job four years ago.
While the Western Bay is an idyllic spot to live, there are major hazards all around us, he says.
The Kerepehi fault line lies on the southern side of the Kaimai Range. The frequency of that fault line rupturing is considered to be low based on previous known earthquakes but, therein, lies the problem.
"We don't know about the next one. We can't predict when the next one will be."
New Zealand is a "shaky isle"

The Kermadec Trench, which runs offshore from the Bay of Plenty through to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, has the capacity to produce a large earthquake that could send a tsunami our way.
Severe flooding is an ongoing issue which will only become more frequent as climate change gradually brings more rain to our region over time.
But the scenario that worried me the most was one which I hadn't given much thought to at all - volcanic eruption.
Pearce dismisses White Island as "not a serious volcano" and not one likely to cause us much grief. But the Okataina Volcanic Centre near Rotorua is capable of a large eruption in future like the one that ripped Mount Tarawera apart in 1886 and destroyed the famed pink and white terraces.
"And let's not forget Lake Taupo," Pearce adds. "That is still active. It's one of the largest mega volcanoes in the world and, if that erupts, the North Island is in deep shit. Literally ash everywhere."
He goes on to paint a picture of falling ash disrupting our power supply for weeks if not months.
"Without electrical power, communities cannot exist in the way they did before. There will be no fuel pumped, no food being chilled, no sewage or wastewater being removed.
"Hydro schemes will have to close down ... the dirtiness of the water in a major Central Plateau eruption would cause major damage to all hydro-electric plants."
New Zealand has long been referred to as a "shaky isle" and Pearce admits you can't fight nature - "although the arrogance of man suggests otherwise".
He believes more people need to get involved in emergency management and, while he's mindful of not causing panic, we simply need to wake up to the risks facing us.
Realistic and pragmatic

"I'd like to see people realistically start doing something about the problem. Otherwise, everyone procrastinates and, when an event is unfolding, will ring up the Civil Defence man and ask 'where can I get an emergency kit?"'
Pearce describes himself as realistic and pragmatic. "If I worried about the world's problems, I wouldn't be right for this job. You've got to be somewhat detached to try and get things done."
Outside of the office, he enjoys survival-type activities; camping, hunting, fishing and spending time in the garden with his wife.
Kerrie Pearce married AJ, as she calls him, one year ago after springing a surprise wedding on their family and friends.
"We told people it was a house warming. It was great because people had a beer in their hands and were wearing jandals. There was no pressure and that's the sort of people we are really. Pretty relaxed."
Between them, they have five children from previous relationships and Kerrie says Pearce has a great sense of humour but is also very focused when necessary.
"When Japan was on the telly that first night, I knew not to interrupt him. If he needed anything he would have asked me."
Her husband is not idle often.
"We'd have to go away for the weekend for that to happen and, even then, he'd probably have a fishing rod in his hands."
At the end of the interview, Pearce shows me around the Western Bay of Plenty Council chamber that doubles as an operations room during any Civil Defence crisis.
A back-up generator will run a string of radio communications, televisions, projector screens and anything else that's required.
I ask Pearce if he will be disappointed if he never gets to use it.
"Not at all. I'm not gung ho about it. But if we do have to go into bat, I want to make sure my staff and I do a good job."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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