In defence of Civil Defence

As growing hectares of land are engulfed in flame, many New Zealanders are doing their part by turning against the agency intended to save them. Good Job.


For those unaware, Christchurch has been struck once again by an environmental crisis.

As growing hectares of land are engulfed in flame, many New Zealanders are doing their part by turning against the agency intended to save them. Good Job.

It began with Brownlee

Yesterday morning, a few hours after the state of emergency had been called by Christchurch City Council and the Selwyn District Council, Gerry Brownlee, Minister for Civil Defence, gave a press conference in which he slammed the behaviour of both councils for not declaring the state of emergency sooner. There were several notable points Brownlee raised about the number of rural firefighters acting within the city boundaries and apparently how terrible this was. For reference rural firefighters are likely to be more experienced in dealing with bush fires than their city counterparts due to the high fire risk nature of the Selwyn area.

However the content of Brownlee’s press conference was irrelevant, the issue comes from the nature of crticising disaster response processes during times of crisis. Gerry Brownlee has essentially opened the floodgates to waves of criticism of Civil Defence in a time where they need New Zealand’s support and cooperation.

eight_col_heliWow maybe we should deal with this GREAT BIG FUCKING FIRE before we show our disapproval

Criticism spreads like wildfire

Since yesterday morning, several notable media outlets have spoken out about the mediocre behavior of the disaster response processes in the lead up to the state of emergency. An article appeared in The Press today analysing exactly what went wrong as if we had already dealt with the fire (spoiler alert: the fire is still going). The finger pointing nature of the article seen in The Press could also be found by popping onto everybody’s favorite talk-back station NewstalkZB. This morning, his-hoskness blessed the audience with his insight. I was very disappointed to find that even The Spinoff, a site I highly admire, published an article explaining that “Civil Defence is not fit for purpose in 2017”.

It has been approximately 24 hours between the writing of this article and Gerry Brownlee’s initial criticism of the disaster response processes. The levels of media condemnation can be expected to grow.

The criticism is hardly justified at best

The decision not to announce a state of emergency likely comes down to the behaviour and state of the fire in the days leading up to the state of emergency being called. At this time the fire was loosely deemed under control. It was an abnormal wind pattern that caused the fire to increase in magnitude. When the wind changed, the state of emergency was called.

It is very easy to say that “it’s better safe than sorry” when it comes to calling a state of emergency. Lets just remember that this is the same Civil Defence that has faced criticism for over-reacting several times over the last several years (example 1 and 2). Sometimes Civil Defence could be known for calling a tsunami warning that can be met with ignorance. The issue here is that we live in a very disaster prone country. Subsequently there will be times that our Civil Defence will order a state of emergency or an evacuation order for what appears to be no reason at all. The more times this occurs, the more likely people are to ignore the warnings. It’s a dangerous pattern and it is likely that many New Zealanders view Civil Defence as an institution that cries wolf.

Civil Defence needs you as much as you need them

An emergency is a time where New Zealanders need to work together more than ever. It’s times like these where media outlets are turned to in order to provide necessary information on how to get through the disaster. There is always scope for criticism and analysis as to what went wrong with the disaster response process but this style of communication needs to take place after the disaster. Civil Defence needs assured authority in times such as this, by criticising this institution where it is needed most, one is undermining that authority.

Gerry Brownlee, with his expert hindsight, is correct. The State of Emergency could have been called earlier, but that doesn’t mean anything. The disaster is still raging and New Zealand needs action and not finger-pointing.

That’s great Gerry, we can all agree you have 20/20 hindsight but why don’t we talk about how to actually deal with the crisis.

New Zealand isn’t used to dealing with disasters that aren’t earthquakes

The core characteristic of an earthquake is that the disaster itself, unlike others, it’s over and done with within approximately 2-5 minutes. Subsequently, media response to the earthquake exclusively takes place after the event. What we’re seeing here is the media dealing with an ongoing crisis where the media is trying to cover the situation as it is happening. However because NZ journalists are so used to reporting on earthquakes, they are reporting on the fire as if it has already finished. New Zealand doesn’t need critique and analysis at this very point in time, it instead needs relevant information so that people can be aware of how the disaster could be affecting themselves, friends or family. The New Zealand media’s failure to adapt to a change in crisis is why we are seeing it seize onto the criticism and finger pointing as set by Gerry Brownlee. To bluntly respond to James Dann’s article on The Spinoff, perhaps the reality is that “New Zealand media are simply unfit for crisis coverage in 2017”.

Discourse on the behavior of Civil Defence and New Zealand’s disaster response processes are a very necessary action to take place after a disaster. It allows for improvement and encourages New Zealand to learn from its mistakes. However this discourse should not come at a time where fire-fighters are risking their lives to halt the crisis. These are the figures who need our support, not our ire.


Jack Kerkvliet

Author: almostpopularblog

I'm an International Relations and Media Graduate from Victoria University in Wellington. I'm too indecisive to explain my compass but you might be able to infer how I stand on things from my *hopefully* many posts. Disclaimer: The opinions I present on this blog do not represent any company or organisation that I may be affiliated to. You can find more blogs like mine at

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