Emergency team rose to the challenge of Covid-19

12 June 2020

It took months – but it’s fair to say the world changed in a blur. 

And, while celebrating and settling back into Level1 over this week, it’s also a perfect time to reflect on the journey we’ve been on, and how we continued to deliver for our community.  

Back on 22 January, when the coronavirus was still confined to China, the NPDC Civil Defence team first sat down to discuss it. We pulled out our Pandemic Response Plan and looked at some of the actions required. We considered what might happen in New Zealand, but we were all thinking the same thing:  “Surely this thing won’t make it here, and even if it did, the impact would be small.”

As the virus raced around the world, that attitude changed.  We realised it was a matter of “when”, not “if”. Once New Zealand had its first confirmed case of Covid-19 we acted.  NPDC activated its Incident Management Team (IMT), which would manage and coordinate our response. Led by NPDC Local Controller David Langford, it comprised managers for intelligence, operations, logistics, public information, and myself as Response Manager. Our priority was the delivery of essential services, like water, rubbish collection and safe roads, which our residents would need to get through an emergency.

As NPDC’s Civil Defence and Emergency Management Lead, I’ve been deployed to some major emergencies, including the Kaikoura earthquake and Edgecumbe floods. Every response is unique, but COVID-19 was unlike any other. After a natural disaster, such as a flood or tornado, you can see the damage and how it affects the community. It could disrupt lifelines such as roads or the water supply. It could halt transport and isolate people. Usually we can estimate how long it will take to fix the damage and restore services. Our role is to fill the gap until then. If the water supply is affected, as it was in New Plymouth by ex-Cyclone Gita in 2018, we can deliver water in tankers until the damage is fixed. If people are isolated and stuck on the other side of slips, as in the June 2015 floods, we can fly supplies to them by helicopter. Covid-19 was the invisible disaster. The damage was – and still is – unseen. There was no broken infrastructure, no access issues.

It also changed more rapidly than any other emergency I’ve ever seen. This made it difficult to keep people effectively informed. Emergency managers must be very flexible as circumstances are fluid. Events often don’t pan out as we expect. We can spend a day planning how to deal with a specific situation, but the situation could change totally in an instant. Then it’s back to the drawing board. With Covid-19, we seemed to be taking curveballs almost every day. For example, the ban on gatherings of more than 500 people had a major impact on our events and venues, but the very next day the 500 became 100, followed by a complete closure of all public facilities.

The IMT had been operating out of our Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) at the TSB Stadium for about two weeks when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made her most significant announcement: We were to be in Alert Level 3 for 48 hours, then go straight to Alert Level 4. Lockdown, essential services only. The moment felt surreal. The team was speechless. In a strange way this made the emergency response job a lot easier. It’s the only time I can ever remember an emergency getting more serious, while our outputs shrank.  Everything was to be closed to the public, with only a skeleton staff on essential sites, such as the water treatment plant. Everyone else was to work from home if they could.

So where we are five months down the track?  We’re well and truly in recovery mode, but that’s not quite a return to pre-Covid-19. Over the next 12 months the unseen impact of COVID-19 will become clearer, particularly the social and economic effects. As Local Recovery Manager, I’m now looking at how we live with the new BAU. Emergency management is about constant improvement, and how we can do better next time.  

I believe emergencies bring out the true character of our people and our organisation. I’m extremely proud of how NPDC responded to Covid-19, and kept delivering essential services to our residents.  

I’m proud of all those who put up their hands to volunteer at the EOC and at the Taranaki Emergency Management Office throughout COVID-19 response. And I’m confident that, for however long it takes, we’ll keep being flexible, being kind and being united when it counts.

Ben Ingram 
NPDC Civil Defence and Emergency Management Lead

Ben Ingram CDEM lead