West Coast quake alert botch-up showed lack of training, finds independent report

By Lee Scanlon

A lack of training and a lack of understanding about emergency communications best practice led to a botched earthquake warning for the West Coast last year, says an independent report. Photo / 123RF
A lack of training and a lack of understanding about emergency communications best practice led to a botched earthquake warning for the West Coast last year, says an independent report. Photo / 123RF

A West Coast Civil Defence warning of a possible big earthquake on the Coast was a "misinterpretation of the facts" caused by lack of training and understanding, says an independent report.

West Coast Civil Defence issued the warning on November 24, 10 days after the Kaikoura earthquake. The warning was written by public information manager Andy Thompson, a Civil Defence volunteer. It was signed off by Civil Defence regional manager/group controller Chris Raine, who is employed by the West Coast Regional Council.

The warning was retracted an hour after it was made public - but by then it had gained national media coverage and been rebutted by the Ministry of Civil Defence.

The regional council subsequently commissioned an independent review from Perception PR and Marketing.

Perception's report, released last night, concluded the earthquake warning was issued with the best of intentions, to encourage Coasters to be prepared.

"However, the source of the information was neither investigated nor verified. The statement was in fact a misinterpretation of the facts, which then caused distress to West Coast locals and visitors."

The biggest problem was lack of training and understanding about best practice emergency communications, the report said.

Other contributing factors were:

• Unclear reporting lines;

• Heavy reliance on a small group of people to respond to a 24/7 event;

• Lack of appropriate tools;

• Tired employees and volunteers.

The report said getting factual and simple messages to people was essential in a civil defence emergency and could mean the difference between life and death.

People in key roles needed to be well trained and practised in their roles. They must have confidence they were providing the facts.

"The lack of planning around sharing critical and potentially life-threatening information is concerning, especially considering the telecommunication issues and the large number of tourists on the West Coast."

Relying on the media to communicate with the public was also surprising, considering the diversity of various audiences, potential language barriers and telecommunication black spots on the Coast.

Relying on one person to undertake all communications in a large-scale emergency was concerning and unrealistic.

In a major incident, the Coast was likely to need outside support. Processes must be clearly documented and easy to find.

Perception's recommendations included:

• Developing a communications policy;

• Reviewing and amending the role description of the regional manager/group controller, including training on external communications;

• Media training to group senior team members;

• Developing an analogue means to share information;

• Developing at least two communications kits in different locations;

• Recruiting and training additional public information managers.

Council responds:

The regional council's chief executive Mike Meehan said the council commissioned the report because it wanted to learn from the incident.

"If things weren't in place we needed to know what we had to put in place. I also wanted someone independent to have a look at the impact of what happened and give us some strong recommendations on how to make it right."

The report said West Coast Civil Defence, Raine and Thompson had suffered damage to their reputations. Meehan said the council wanted to fix that.

"We've got an important job to do. We need to have the trust and confidence of the public that we will do that job well."

The report recommended an apology to Thompson, who wrote the earthquake warning statement which was signed off by Raine.

Meehan said Thompson - a volunteer - had been subject to some unwarranted public criticism from regional council staff. The council unreservedly apologised to him. "He did a very good job. He was just following directions. We have full confidence in him in his abilities in that role."

Meehan said the report's conclusions came as no surprise.

"There's always room for improvement. We'll get on and make those changes and make things better."

Perception was helping the council make the changes.

They would include a comprehensive review of council's Civil Defence communications strategy, including fact checking and sign-off procedures, those authorised to issue statements, and stakeholder groups that needed to be communicated with.
Longer term the council would address its wider communications responsibilities including the role of social media and the 24/7 nature of modern communications.

- Westport News

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