Information crucial in dangerous times
The frightening, destructive and fatal Port Hills fires this week have been witnessed by probably hundreds of thousands of people, giving rise to concern and anxiety, even among those whose homes and businesses were well out of the fire zones or evacuation areas. To those watching, from near or far, a lack of reliable information has sometimes been excruciating.
Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee said yesterday he was getting his ‘‘most accurate advice’’ from the news media rather than from officials at key moments during the emergency. This was saying something because the news media was in turn scrambling to get useful information that it could pass on to the public and, apparently, the minister.
Some will say that when a crisis of this magnitude hits, people need to get on with dealing with it, rather than telling people what is going on. This is misguided. Reliable information is crucial in dangerous times – to calm public anxiety, to mobilise resources from within the community, to tell people to move when they need to, and to warn people to stay away at times. Anyone who lived through the earthquakes of 2010-2011 will remember the necessary public hunger for information about what was going on.
New Zealand authorities and agencies have had plenty of practice in dealing with disasters in recent years, but sometimes still seem to fall short in getting necessary information and advice out. The confusion over the tsunami warning following last November’s Kaikoura earthquake is another example. In other cases, authorities have made questionable decisions – central Wellington was reopened far too quickly after the Kaikoura quake because Mayor Justin Lester didn’t want to create ‘‘fear or hysteria’’ by keeping the CBD closed. Fear and hysteria are more likely when people are ill-informed.
In Christchurch this week, the state of emergency was declared 48 hours after the fires started, after mass evacuations began and only after a serious escalation of the blazes which might have been foreseen in a worst-casescenario risk assessment. Civil Defence guidelines state that states of emergency should be declared ‘‘early rather than late’’ – advice which seems to have been ignored in this case. No-one can doubt the bravery and dedication of those on the front lines, but there seems to have been blocked lines of communication at the strategic level.
Maybe part of the problem is that New Zealand, a country of just 4.5 million people, has multiple layers of authorities and agencies with sometimes conflicting roles. The fires have burned across the boundaries of Christchurch City and Selwyn District, which is why the state of emergency was declared jointly by mayors Lianne Dalziel and Sam Broughton. How long did it take them to coordinate that decision? Could a single authority have done it more quickly? Brownlee had the power to declare an emergency himself, as did the wider-area Civil Defence Emergency Management Group, but they did not do so. The Selwyn Rural Fire Authority was the lead agency in fighting the fires, which seemed incongruous once houses in Christchurch city suburbs began to burn.
There has to be a swifter and simpler way of dealing with emergencies, and in letting people know how to react. That needs to be one of the lessons learned from these fires.
Fear and hysteria are more likely when people are ill-informed.