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Civil defence

by Nancy Swarbrick

New Zealand’s first organised civil defence was prompted by fears of air raids and poison-gas attacks during the Second World War – and fears of nuclear attack in the 1950s. In the 2000s natural disasters such as floods, landslides, earthquakes and fires were the focus of civil-defence planning and activities.

Evolution of organised civil defence


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.

Civil defence in the 2000s

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.

Community involvement in civil defence

Being prepared

Civil defence has always stressed the importance of individual and community self-reliance. Persuading people to prepare for an emergency can be difficult – many apparently prefer not to think about something that may never happen. When disasters happen elsewhere, however, people are often shocked into making preparations, such as filling water bottles and assembling emergency items at home and work, and making a plan of action with family members.

Details on how to prepare for and behave in an emergency are given on the national and regional civil-defence websites, and in regular newspaper and television advertisements. Many Civil Defence Emergency Management (CDEM) regions have a text alert system for disasters, and the Civil Defence website provides Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Community civil defence

Community civil-defence centres are an important part of the civil-defence system, as they may be the first places that people go to if they have to evacuate their homes. Based at schools, community centres and marae, these are run by volunteers, who can be people with specialised skills, such as nurses and builders, or general volunteers who help with tasks such as communications and welfare.

Urban Search and Rescue, which locates and rescues people trapped in collapsed buildings or landslides, also relies on volunteers.

For real

Civil-defence exercises often call for people to play the role of ‘casualties’, but sometimes the afflictions of these volunteers have been genuine. In a Marlborough civil-defence exercise in the early 1990s, one volunteer developed mild hypothermia, while another had to be treated for heatstroke.

Education and training

Volunteers receive regular training from their regional CDEM organisation. The ministry’s programme and website for primary and secondary students, ‘What’s the Plan Stan?’, supported the teaching of disaster awareness and survival skills in schools. Advanced training for civil-defence professionals is offered at tertiary-education institutions, with qualifications ranging from entry-level certificates to postgraduate degrees.

Civil-defence exercises have been run since the 1960s, increasing in number and complexity from the 1980s. These test local, regional and sometimes national civil-defence personnel, systems, strategies and equipment in response to a disaster scenario. In addition, rescue teams compete in regular competitions and tournaments.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Nancy Swarbrick, 'Civil defence', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 June 2021)

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