Capital's Civil Defence gets a Shake-up

5 May 2010

Wellington is getting a major shake-up - not from an earthquake, but in a root-and-branch revamp of how the city is preparing itself for an emergency.

Big changes are under way nearly a year after Mayor Kerry Prendergast challenged Wellington's civil defence network to raise its profile and make itself more exciting to potential volunteers.

That followed several weeks of controversy over the restructuring of the City Council's Wellington Emergency Management Office (WEMO) and an at-times bitter debate over the state of the Capital City's emergency preparedness and Civil Defence volunteer network.

Now big changes are under way, says the Council's Emergency Preparedness Manager, Fred Mecoy, who has been in charge at WEMO since August.

Fred and his staff are starting a concerted campaign to recruit and train large numbers of new civil defence volunteers - and are working on a "fundamental transformation" of the civil defence network.

WEMO has launched a new training programme for volunteers and the first, 34-strong, group of new volunteers is now undertaking the seven-week course which has been developed with help from the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management and includes assessment to NZQA standards.

Course participants learn a range of useful skills including personal preparedness (you need to look after yourself and your family first), two-way radio communications, and civil defence centre procedures. The inaugural intake will graduate in June - but the next course starts later this month (there are only a few places left).

Staff are also helping to raise the profile of volunteering across the city. Last week, thanks to the hard work of the Hataitai Residents' Association, more than 70 people attended a free public presentation on emergency preparedness - and a third of them have expressed interest in becoming a civil defence volunteer.

Fred says his big aim is to establish a large network of volunteers who are "motivated, interested and mobile".

Although WEMO is asking new recruits to commit to at least two years' service after the course, the commitment is not an onerous one.  You will only be asked to attend four civil defence exercises per year - most of which are no more than 90 minutes long. 

"A big departure from the previous approach is our commitment to better valuing volunteers' time. So each time you participate in an activity you will go home knowing that you have in some way strengthened the community's emergency preparedness.

"By standardising the administration and training, volunteers right across the city will have consistent skills, can be deployed anywhere, and, in turn, will feel better supported than before."

"We are breathing some life and some fun into civil defence. Although traditionally CD presentations and training are about as cheerful as your grandmother's funeral, I don't see why that has to be the case. But while our new approach allows volunteers to have some fun it certainly doesn't trivialise the topic, so the importance of it remains intact."

Last November's Phoenix civil defence exercise was highly-successful - with more than 80 volunteers taking part - and Fred wants this year's main exercise in October to be bigger still.

Fred invites anyone with an interest in their community's emergency preparedness to get in touch to find out more.

The phone number is (04) 460 0650 and the email address is wemo@wcc.govt.nz

In a major emergency, volunteers would principally be involved in running the civil defence centres around the city - and acting as the local 'eyes and ears' for emergency management office staff and, in turn, the emergency services.

"Volunteers would provide vital information about what's happened in their neighbourhood so that the emergency services can provide critical help where it's needed most. Therefore, volunteers will be crucial to ensuring a successful response in a large-scale emergency."