Story: Civil defence

Page 1. Evolution of organised civil defence

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New Zealand communities traditionally had to fend for themselves in emergencies, although some government assistance was provided following major disasters such as the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake.

Organised civil defence had its origins in the Emergency Precautions Scheme (EPS) of the Second World War, when air raids and poison-gas attacks were the main fears. The government co-ordinated the EPS, using local volunteers trained in firefighting and first aid. The only real emergencies the EPS had to deal with were the Wairarapa and Wellington earthquakes of 1942.

Declaring an emergency

The Public Safety Conservation Act 1932 enabled the government to declare a state of emergency if public safety or order was imperilled. It was another 30 years before regional and local civil-defence co-ordinators gained the power to declare a state of emergency under the Civil Defence Act 1962.


Concerns about the possibility of nuclear attack during the 1950s were behind the Local Authorities Emergency Powers Act 1953, which allowed local authorities to organise rescue and welfare services. An acknowledgement of the need for national oversight was behind the establishment of the Ministry of Civil Defence in 1959.


The Civil Defence Act 1962 set up a three-tier structure, consisting of a National Civil Defence Committee, regional commissioners, and local bodies. However, because of a lack of funding, administrative support, or clear direction from the top, local civil-defence organisation was often patchy.

Nuclear or natural?

In the 1950s and early 1960s, nuclear warfare was thought to be the greatest risk to New Zealand communities. It was not until 1965 that civil-defence organising focused on responses to natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods. In the 2000s the threat of pandemics made headlines that were borne out by the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020.

In April 1968 a severe storm hit the country, damaging buildings and communications. Several people were killed by flying debris, and 51 died when the inter-island ferry Wahine foundered in Wellington Harbour. Some local authorities failed to declare emergencies, and communications between the ministry and regions were poor. It later emerged that some local bodies had no civil-defence plan. These were made compulsory under an amendment to the act in October 1968.


In February 1973 drums leaking cotton defoliant were offloaded from a ship and stored in Parnell, Auckland. The toxic fumes affected local residents, and parts of Parnell were evacuated, with several hundred people needing medical treatment. Subsequently, emergency services co-ordinating committees were set up in the main cities to ensure communication between fire services, police and ambulance.

After the hill beneath the suburb of Abbotsford in Dunedin began to move in June 1979, 69 homes were wrecked in major landslips. This catastrophe underlined the need to declare a state of emergency when there was potential, as well as actual, loss of life and property.


The Civil Defence Act 1983 clarified the responsibilities of central government and regional and territorial authorities. It also provided for the appointment of a disaster recovery co-ordinator to oversee remedial work after an emergency. Disaster recovery co-ordinators were called on to deal with the aftermath of floods in Southland in 1984, an earthquake in Bay of Plenty in 1987, and Cyclone Bola on the East Coast in 1988. In 1989 a scientific advisory committee was formed to provide expert advice on natural hazards like these.

Both national and local civil-defence structures were regularly criticised for inefficiency during the 1980s. In 1985 the director of civil defence, Wira Gardiner, and his deputy resigned in protest at inadequate government funding and support.


Local-government changes and restructuring of the public service prompted amendment of civil-defence legislation in 1989. Reviews carried out during the 1990s concluded that there was a need for a more integrated approach to national and local planning. As a result, the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management was set up in 1999.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Civil defence - Evolution of organised civil defence', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 2 July 2022)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 20 Jun 2012, updated 1 May 2020