In­for­ma­tion cru­cial in dan­ger­ous times

The Press - - Front Page -

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.