Story: Civil defence

Page 2. Civil defence in the 2000s

All images & media in this story

2002 legislation

The Civil Defence Emergency Management Act 2002 outlined a new approach. Local authorities were clustered into regional Civil Defence Emergency Management (CDEM) groups, along with representatives of local emergency and welfare services and ‘lifeline utilities’ such as power companies. Each group had to write a plan that took into account the region’s particular disaster risks. Plans were based on principles described as ‘the four Rs’: reduction, readiness, response and recovery. The plans aimed to reduce risks and manage recovery, and to prepare for and deal with emergencies.

Managing crises

The National Crisis Management Centre, opened in 1972, is situated below ground in the Beehive (the executive wing of Parliament) in Wellington, and is designed to be self-sufficient in a disaster. Built to withstand a major earthquake, it has its own power, water and food supplies, independent IT and telecommunications systems, operations facilities and living quarters. The centre monitors events in local and national emergencies, co-ordinates resources where required, and controls the civil-defence effort if necessary.

Ministry responsibilities

From 2002 the ministry provided support to regional CDEM groups, carried out national planning and strategy work, and managed the government response to major natural disasters. It also maintained the National Crisis Management Centre in a state of readiness.


Some communication problems have emerged. In May 2006, after an earthquake in Tonga, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre advised that a destructive tsunami might reach New Zealand. Although the warning was downscaled within minutes, the BBC and CNN global television networks both broadcast it, concerned expatriates contacted family in New Zealand, and many people fled their homes. No information had been issued by the National Crisis Management Centre, so local media and civil-defence personnel were confused. The centre subsequently changed its procedures to ensure that all civil-defence groups and essential services such as police and fire services were kept informed of the status of warnings. It also reached an agreement with broadcasters over notification of emergencies.

After communication with the news media over a possible tsunami after an earthquake near Samoa in September 2009 caused some confusion, there were further reviews of arrangements for notifying broadcasters.

In 2011 a new web-based computer system was developed to link the National Crisis Management Centre with regional CDEM groups, allowing them to share information in an emergency. It also enabled other emergency services such as police to access information as required.

Advance warning

With chilling foresight, in 1988 Christchurch civil-defence authorities prepared a scenario of what would happen to the city in the event of a big earthquake. This suggested that as many as 200 people would be killed and that there would be serious damage in the central business district and widespread liquefaction. The February 2011 earthquake proved these predictions to be accurate.

Canterbury earthquakes

Two major earthquakes centred near Christchurch in September 2010 and February 2011 tested civil-defence systems to the maximum. Never before in the history of organised civil defence in New Zealand had there been an emergency with as many casualties as the February quake. Some difficulties emerged, notably community dissatisfaction at lack of consultation before some buildings were demolished, and restrictions on entry to the central-city red zone. National Controller John Hamilton observed that while the military-command style of operation was useful during the rescue phase, the recovery period called for a more collaborative approach.

In 2019, following the 2016 Kaikōura earthquake and 2017 Port Hills fires, the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management was replaced by a National Emergency Management Agency based in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Civil defence - Civil defence in the 2000s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 2 July 2022)

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