Story: Natural hazards – overview

Page 2. Civil defence – coping with emergencies

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Self-reliant communities

In the early days of New Zealand settlement, communities were isolated – when disaster struck they had to cope on their own. Today, earthquakes, floods and volcanic eruptions can cut communications, close roads and railway lines, and shut airports. Communities cannot assume that other people will be able to come to their rescue in an emergency. Self-reliance is still a major goal of civil defence.

The 1991 Resource Management Act made local authorities responsible for handling natural hazards in their area. Because there were 86 local authorities, the 2002 Civil Defence Emergency Management Act required neighbouring regions to pool civil defence resources. During large-scale disasters the National Emergency Management Agency co-ordinates assistance.

Goals of emergency management

The goals of local emergency management in New Zealand have been summed up as the four Rs: reduction, readiness, response and recovery.

  • Reduction – local authorities must analyse potential hazards in their region and take steps to reduce the risk of injury and death, damage, and social and economic disruption.
  • Readiness – staff in local emergency services must be trained to deal with dangers, and the general public made aware of ways to stay safe during emergencies and how to cope on their own.
  • Response – actions taken before, during and after a disaster to save lives and property include declaring a civil defence emergency, evacuating areas, closing roads, and requisitioning anything useful. Local authorities can impose night-time curfews to prevent looting, and they have priority on communication networks.
  • Recovery – activities taken to restore the community to normal functioning. Many authorities encourage local businesses to plan recovery actions.

National civil defence

The 1929 Murchison and 1931 Napier earthquakes made the country aware of the need for a national organisation to assist during major emergencies. The 1932 Public Safety Conservation Act, passed after riots had occurred in major cities, allowed the government to declare a state of emergency when public safety or public order was likely to be threatened. There were no provisions, however, for organisations to plan for disasters.

The Emergency Precautions Scheme was set up in the shadow of the Second World War. Volunteers were organised and trained to deal with air raids, fires, poison-gas attacks and earthquakes. Interest in civil defence diminished after the Second World War, but was renewed with fears of nuclear war.

Ministry of Civil Defence

The Ministry of Civil Defence was set up in 1959, and from the mid-1960s its focus was on natural-hazard emergencies. In 1999 it became the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management, to reflect a new emphasis on making preparations to lessen the effects of a disaster.

The National Emergency Management Agency, as it was renamed in 2019, works with central and local governments, emergency services, and the utilities that maintain services such as water, power, gas, transport and telecommunications.

During local civil defence emergencies, the agency has a National Crisis Management Centre that assists communities with expert advice and transmits information to government and local agencies. In the event of a nationwide emergency, it can manage the entire response.

The centre is designed to function in the event of a major earthquake or power failure – it has earthquake protection, emergency power, a water supply, air-filtering equipment, and computer and telecommunications systems. Equipped with a cafeteria, sleeping accommodation, and first-aid and other facilities for staff, it is kept in a continuous state of readiness.

How to cite this page:

Eileen McSaveney and Simon Nathan, 'Natural hazards – overview - Civil defence – coping with emergencies', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/natural-hazards-overview/page-2 (accessed 10 May 2021)

Story by Eileen McSaveney and Simon Nathan, published 12 Jun 2006