Westland mayor challenges need for Emergency Control Room

1:38 pm on 6 April 2020

Lois Williams, Local Democracy Reporter

The need for a regional Emergency Control Centre has been challenged by Westland mayor and West Coast Civil Defence chairman Bruce Smith.

Westland Recreation Centre, Greymouth

Westland Recreation Centre, Greymouth Photo: Google

The Centre was set up last week in Greymouth's Westland Recreation Centre to support the community through the Covid-19 lockdown and outbreak.

Smith says in the current emergency, the control centre's main function is community welfare, and by and large Coasters are doing it for themselves.

The real work was being done in the communities through the Buller, Grey and Westland District councils, and not by Civil Defence, he said.

"I've been getting quite a few calls about why we need this central control unit. People are asking if it's really necessary to take over a large space, fill it with people supposedly doing welfare, when council staff are already doing it."

Civil Defence had planned to rope in up to 50 council staff from around the region to help out, but the councils had simply refused to let them go, Smith said.

"What would be the point of having people drive from Westport to Greymouth, or up from Hokitika every day, or put them up in motels, just so they can sit around twiddling their thumbs waiting for something to happen?"

Westland mayor Bruce Smith

Westland mayor Bruce Smith Photo: RNZ / Katie Todd

Buller mayor Jamie Cleine said his council had decided its staff would be available to Civil Defence headquarters in a virtual sense.

"It seemed inappropriate and unnecessary for them to be away from their families or driving down there every day. They can certainly do what's needed from here, working remotely and we felt the need to activate our own centre. "

That was working well, Cleine said.

"People ring the one Coast Civil Defence number and they're diverted through to their local council team in Buller or Hokitika or Grey. The call traffic's been pretty light so far."

Most inquiries were from people wanting to know where to know where they could go for walks, or needing emergency accommodation and those things were best dealt with locally, Cleine said.

"Is it [the ECC] more than needed? Some of the systems and processes might seem over the top, but this is an evolving emergency and we don't know what's coming, do we?

"I'm happy our response is now at the right level."

West Coast Regional councillor Peter Ewen was also sceptical about the Civil Defence set-up. The provision for more than 40 staff at the ECC was "ridiculous", he said.

"How many of those were here in 1968, or for the two Grey floods of 1988? Few if any I suggest. It's Civil Defence empire building."

West Coast Regional Council chief executive Mike Meehan, who is the alternate Civil Defence controller for the region, said the Emergency Control Centre system was not a cost to ratepayers.

"It's been activated in every emergency, and it's worked well. The only difference in this case is that emergency is not localised, it's a national event. And at a time like this the government doesn't want to be talking to 78 Civil Defence groups around the country when it can talk to 16.

"The government picks up any welfare costs, and council staff involved are already being paid, there's only about seven people actually working at the centre in Greymouth, everyone else is working remotely," Meehan said.

Smith said the directive to set up an Emergency Control Centre came from the government, not the West Coast Civil Defence Emergency Management Group he chairs.

Civil defence staff waiting by their whiteboards might be better deployed barricading the Haast highway to stop the annual influx of hunters heading to the coast for the roar, he suggested.

"It happens every Easter, and this year they're coming in by the carload and heading into the bush on foot, even though they're supposed to be staying put at home."

Local helicopter firms who usually flew the hunters in with supplies and flew them out again were fuming, Smith said.

"They're not allowed to fly because of the Covid emergency, but these hunters are just coming in anyway. The back roads are like State Highways, and they're parking up and tramping in."

Meehan said Civil Defence and the police had been informed of the complaint and would take action as required.

Greymouth Mayor Tania Gibson said in her view everyone involved in the council and Civil Defence response to Covid-19 emergency was doing the best they could.

"Now is probably not the best time to be questioning the way we're managing it," she said.

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