If any part of New Zealand could be expected to have a well-honed civil defence system by now it is Christchurch. The earthquakes it suffered before and after the catastrophic shock that hit the city seven years ago tomorrow should have been all the drill any local and national civil defence organisation would need to ensure it could respond to an emergency quickly and effectively and keep displaced people well informed. Yet those qualities were not evident when the Kaikoura earthquake occurred in November and they have been sadly lacking in the Port Hills fire.

Though the Port Hills contain suburbs of Christchurch, the emergency response was in the hands of a rural fire service for the Selwyn District. It was far too late declaring a state of emergency for the liking of Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee and far too little information was being provided on the day that people were being advised to evacuate their homes.

Over the weekend, with light rain falling in Canterbury and suburbs no longer in imminent danger, it was the turn of evacuated householders to suffer confusion and frustration as they tried to return to their homes. A professional organisation should be quick to act, sharp in its transmission of information and, just as important, it should not prolong an evacuation longer than is really necessary. A dampened down fire might be capable of flaring up again but if it does, houses can be evacuated again.

The residents of the Port Hills and nearby suburbs readily complied with evacuation advice at short notice last Monday and they would have done so a second time if ordered. But after several days without a change of clothes and anxious about their homes, their comfort became more important than strict principles of procedure. A culture of safety can be taken too far, especially by part-time volunteers who have not been encouraged to use their discretion.


It may be wondered whether a country of New Zealand's size and population is well served by such a fragmented civil defence organisation. Certainly, it is important in emergencies that first responders are on the spot, and that a local co-ordinator knows what relief is immediately available and where to find it. But no part of the country is too far from a more centralised professional service.

Ironically, while the fire was still raging around Christchurch last Wednesday evening, MPs in Wellington were debating the Fire and Emergency New Zealand Bill that, in the words of its sponsoring minister, Peter Dunne, is about, "bringing together rural, urban, volunteer and paid firefighters into one national organisation for the first time". The organisation will be known as Fire and Emergency NZ. Its acronym, Fenz, will soon be well known if it becomes the leading actor in response to civil emergencies anywhere in the country.

Communication needs to be one of it primary concerns. It may be less important than removing people from danger but if relief teams can also quickly provide clear, accurate assessments of what is happening and what needs to happen, rescues, evacuations and pre-emptive measures are usually assisted too. Civil Defence's grumbling minister needs to see that it happens.