What is Civil Defence?

Civil Defence

Civil Defence, in its simplest term, is preparing in advance the protection we will need when disaster strikes. In emergencies, Civil Defence has three goals:

  • To prevent loss of life
  • To help the injured
  • To relieve personal suffering and distress

In most circumstances the emergency services (Police, Fire Service, Ambulance) deal with our emergencies. Where they are unable to cope, because of the scale of the event or where the extraordinary powers of the Civil Defence Act are required, then Civil Defence measures are used.

Civil Defence can be thought about as the 4Rs of emergency management:

Readiness: Preparing for emergencies before they happen, including making plans at work, home and school and knowing what to do in the event of an emergency before it happens.

Reduction: Reducing the risk of emergencies occurring and reducing their impact is very important, including making your home, work and school earthquake proof, building and maintaining stopbanks on rivers and having insurance.

Response: All parts of the community do what is necessary to protect life and prevent injury. This involves individuals, government agencies, local authorities, businesses, schools, community organisations and emergency services.

Recovery: It is important that plans are made to recover from emergencies. The aim is to restore the affected community to a state of normality as quickly as possible.

Why have Civil Defence?

In New Zealand we are constantly exposed to the risk of disaster. These risks present themselves in a variety of different forms. Floods, earthquakes, storms, tsunami and technological disasters affect communities in New Zealand every year.

The Honourable Geoffrey Palmer summed it up when he said:

It sometimes does us a power of good to remind ourselves that we live on two volcanic rocks where two tectonic plates meet in a somewhat lonely stretch of windswept ocean just above the Roaring Forties. If you want drama you've come to the right place.

When emergencies occur on a scale too great to be dealt with by the emergency services in the normal way, then a Civil Defence organisation is needed.

How did it all begin?

Sir Winston Churchill once said:

The need for an effective system of Civil Defence is surely beyond dispute. It presents itself today in its noblest aspect - namely the Christian duty to help fellow mortals in distress. Rescue, salvage and ambulance work have been the core of Civil Defence and no city, nor family, nor any honourable man or woman, can repudiate this duty and accept from others, help which they are not prepared to fit themselves to render in return.

In New Zealand, Civil Defence had its beginnings as a result of the 1929 Murchison earthquake and 1931 Napier earthquake. The passage of the Public Safety Conservation Act in 1932 was in part a response to the difficulties that were experienced in responding to those two large earthquakes.

In 1939 the "Emergency Precautions Scheme" (EPS) was designed to meet emergency conditions arising from enemy attack, epidemics, earthquakes and other natural disasters. Many local authorities undertook enlistment drives, urging women and men not liable to military call up to become involved.

Civil Defence was born!

It wasn't until April 1959 that a separate Ministry of Civil Defence was created. From that time on, Civil Defence has enjoyed an increasing public profile.

Last updated: 24 Feb 2021