Unpacking Auckland Emergency Management’s Lack of Contact During Storm

 Today , people in Auckland are seeing regular updates from Auckland’s Emergency Management/Civil Defence and Auckland Council and every infrastructure provider in the region.  Great.


Last night, it was a different story.

 

No one in Auckland City’s Emergency Management communicated the severity of the risk to people, homes and property throughout the night.


 

It was reported by media and weather forecasts after damage and destruction had already occurred.

But so many, including myself in Auckland last night, were blindsided by what happened.

Did you know that Auckland would be facing a storm equal to the strength of a Category 2 Cyclone on Tuesday night?  Most didn’t. I didn’t.

Missing in action: Auckland Emergency Management.  Thank you to the weather forecasters for doing their very best.

But there’s a question mark around why Auckland Council’s Emergency Management Team didn’t communicate to the public at any point during Tuesday night and through the night. Why not? Especially as it became clear that the storm was turning into a hurricane night. When more than 100,000 people, according to media reports, were left without power, it flags significant risks for the Auckland population.

Yet no word from Civil Defence in Auckland or anywhere else for that matter until later in the morning.

I write this, not to throw stones, but to highlight the gaps in emergency communications in civil defence. So that next time there’s a better outcome for the public in terms of hearing from authorities.

 

This isn’t an issue unique to New Zealand or Auckland.

Communications in an emergency for governments and authorities is one of the most challenging areas in an emergency disaster event.

Literature on disaster and emergency management is littered with case studies on this very topic.

In journalism, I bring what might be a unique perspective and insight in the media on emergencies and the role of public authorities in communicating to populations.  Because I have worked in emergency response in a senior communications capacity during major earthquakes, storms, communicable disease outbreaks, other hazards and so on. I’ve also presented papers internationally on emergency communications. It’s an area of work I’ve practiced in, off and on, for the last 14 years.

Auckland Emergency Management Graphic: This is on the front home website of Auckland Emergency Management website. During or before the storm and hurricane winds last night, is reported to equal the strength of a Category 2 cyclone, there was no emergency mobile alert. No radio announcements. No online messages during the night of hurricane winds, a severe major storm. But it’s a great looking graphic.


Newshub’s Duncan Garner has levelled strong criticism this morning at Auckland Emergency Management/Auckland Council/Civil Defence for the lack of communication on the storm last night.

From a communications standpoint, on the assumption that Auckland Emergency Management have experienced emergency communications staff on their team, Duncan Garner is right.

It’s not a frontline role communicating those messages when you live in Auckland.

NIWA’s commented today that the storm could have been a lot worst. Then this is an opportunity to get the communications approach right before Auckland, the largest city in the country, encounters a far bigger storm.

The role of a communications professional in an emergency team is specific to the needs of that emergency team and ensuring that the messages address what the public needs to know in an emergency –  to stay safe.  A key emergency communications function is liaising with media.

Auckland Council has a customer service team and it is this team that would be dealing with the hundreds of service calls from around Auckland, not the civil defence management team itself.

Garner makes a fair criticism about Auckland Council not returning calls or fronting this morning.  But there’s also another side to this when emergencies hit.

It is understandable from an emergency communications perspective why Auckland Emergency Management may not have interviewed on Newshub or any one media outlet today.

In an emergency situation like last night was, the first opportunity that authorities have to communicate needs to be to all media at the same time so all have the same access to the same information and opportunity for questions, if possible.

That opportunity for a face to face press conference came today. The first message in an emergency needs to express empathy for what people went through last night.

Instead, it’s not clear if there was any empathy or understanding expressed by Auckland Emergency Management of what people in Auckland went through last night. But what is clear is that Auckland Emergency Management are on the defensive. And that’s not how you build engagement with the public, usually, especially after an emergency.

Let’s debrief. The communications response from Auckland Emergency Management last night wasn’t good enough given the conditions that people were battling during the night.

The lack of communications during the night suggest Auckland Council/ Auckland Emergency Management took a business-as-usual approach to communicating with people in Auckland.

Adopting a business-as-usual approach to messaging by not messaging during an emergency night is one of the biggest mistakes that government authorities make during a stressful emergency time for any community or population.

When I presented at the Australian and New Zealand Disaster and Emergency Management Conference last year, the question that I was asked the most during the conference and afterwards was:  when to take a business-as-usual approach during an emergency, and how often should you communicate with your public during a storm/earthquake/emergency.

The short answer is, you should never take a business-as-usual communications approach in a situation like last night with a Category 2 strength storm on its way.

There are reasons why organisations in an emergency function sometimes default to business as usual in their approach to communicating with the public, but that’s a post for another time.

That business-as-usual approach, with the lack of messaging during the night, lacked real world understanding of emergency communications, and zero empathy.

Auckland is a widely dispersed and diverse population of more than 1.3 million people living North, South, West, and East of Auckland. They present a melting pot of people of multicultural New Zealand with mutiple languages and socio-economic status and life experiences.

Newshub Duncan Garner: “I reckon that the authorities in Auckland this morning were as disorganised as [beep beep].”

The AM Show host said on Wednesday morning. “There was no warning – no official warning from NZTA, Civil Defence… I didn’t get a clear signal from any of these authorities that there was a problem.”

“Host Amanda Gillies says that the storm “took everyone by surprise” and Mark Richardson explained that weather expert Chris Brandolino called it a “sneaky, intensifying low”.

“It snuck up on us. It was a sucker punch,” he exclaimed.

“I don’t think anyone expected – they had 1600 call-outs,” Gillies said.

However Garner wasn’t impressed, calling the response “useless, bloody useless”.

“We’d been trying to get hold of the Council this morning. Unresponsive, no answer,” he said.

“The PR aren’t doing the clean-up. They’re sitting there on the shiny bum stuff.

“It snuck up on us and the authorities were asleep this morning and not telling you what you need to know.”

Civil Defence is set to address the criticism at a press conference on Wednesday afternoon.

 


This isn’t a complaint at all about those on the frontline.

Feedback is directed at those in charge of managing and communicating important emergency messages in Auckland, during a time of severe storm and hurricane winds.

Newshub


Auckland’s Civil Defence Director John Dragicevich says they communicated through the night, but it’s not clear how and where.

Because I didn’t see any messages from Auckland Civil Defence last night and morning.

The last message posted on their Facebook page was in the afternoon, ten hours earlier.

I was, like many others, looking for alerts or messages from Auckland Emergency Management. They were there during other lesser storms, weren’t they?

So maybe Auckland Emergency Management need to tell people exactly where they posted their messages to the public last night. Because it wasn’t good enough to not be communicating in the evening when there are hurricane winds blowing about the city, airports closed, thousands without power, and a scary night in a city with a population of more than 1.3 million.

Hence, the biggest surprise wasn’t just the hurricane weather.

The other major surprise was the complete lack of any messages on the night from the one organisation that you’d expect to hear from in an emergency or major storm.

What exactly was needed from Auckland’s Civil Defence?

Simple ready to go messages at regular intervals during the night. Updates, if possible.

If all you can do is reassure people, let them know you care, and repeat safety tips to help people get through what was a terrifying night. That means a lot to people when they are going through a storm. There are so many segments of an affected population that you have to consider in an emergency, not just the ones you’re familiar with. Think about the elderly, those who live on their own, they may be children or disabled folk at home alone.

Writing messages on an emergency management Facebook Page is usually a backroom behind the scenes role filled by an experienced communications or PR person, hopefully someone with real world emergency experience.  That kind of emergency messaging work can be done from a smartphone with wifi or data access from Auckland, Wellington or anywhere in the country, as well as the world.

In times of emergency and distress like last night, it’s important for authorities to step up and reassure people and let them know what you’re doing to support the city through the emergency. That understanding of the psychology of people during an emergency was missing last night for Auckland.

Auckland city authorities were silent while the storm and chaos raged on.

All flights in and out of Auckland airport last night halted due to winds of hurricane proportions. That’s unprecedented. That’s not a common occurrence for Auckland Airport. Mainstream media reported tens of thousands without power.

If you have little ones or people who are ill, having no power in your home since last night isn’t just an inconvenience. That can easily turn into a dire emergency situation, or worse.


Dragicevich referred to ‘partners’ today such as MetService praising their work during this storm. He said something along the lines that they did a fantastic job. But he missed the point of people’s questions and criticisms, at least mine from a great distance.

New Zealand’s MetService, and other weather forecasters such as weatherwatch.co.nz  have a specific job to do: provide weather forecasts based on the best possible information and modelling they have. And they appear to have done that, forewarning with regular forecasts throughout the week and day. That’s their role done and dusted.

MetService, however, often have a delayed response direct to the public, compared to weatherwatch.co.nz, at times.

[But communicating that, and ensuring those messages and updates reach the people who need to see them, is another topic for another time.]  A brief example: I didn’t see any reference to last night’s storm being the equivalent of a Category 2. NIWA updates don’t appear on my Facebook, even though I have signed up to receive their status updates and I’m a regular Facebook user.  So whose fault is that? Mine as a citizen?

Despite that, I can’t see how any can challenge what the weather forecasters did. Although, unless you are familiar with reading weather forecasts as a daily part of your job, it can be hard to read and make sense of weather forecasts if it is only written for scientists.

That said, the weather forecasters stepped into a de facto Civil Defence role last night as communicators on Facebook.

At least they were posting messages and updates last night, from memory.

But, let’s be clear about the distinctions between the two government agencies: MetService and Civil Defence.

MetService are the weather guys.

They are not responsible for managing the  emergency management and civil defence needs of the Auckland region.

That role falls to Auckland Council’s Auckland Emergency Management team, not MetService or NIWA.

And that’s what its director needs to understand as well.

Post Author: Suausi Vienna Richards

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *