Civil Defence history

NZ's first organised civil defence was prompted by fears of air raids and poison-gas attacks during the Second World War – and fears of nuclear attack in the 1950s.

Since 2004 natural disasters such as floods, landslides and earthquakes were the focus of civil-defence planning and activities.

New Zealand communities traditionally had to fend for themselves in emergencies, although some government assistance followed major disasters such as the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake.

Organised civil defence had its origins in the Emergency Precautions Scheme (EPS) of the Second World War, when air raids and poison-gas attacks were the main fears. The government co-ordinated the EPS, using local volunteers trained in firefighting and first aid. The only real emergencies the EPS had to deal with were the Wairarapa and Wellington earthquakes of 1942


Concerns about the possibility of nuclear attack during the 1950s were behind the Local Authorities Emergency Powers Act 1953, which allowed local authorities to organise rescue and welfare services. Acknowledgement of the need for national oversight was behind the establishment of the Ministry of Civil Defence in 1959.


The Civil Defence Act 1962 set up a three-tier structure, consisting of a National Civil Defence Committee, regional commissioners and local bodies. However, because of a lack of funding and administrative support, and unclear direction from the top, local civil-defence organisation was often patchy. 

In April 1968 a severe storm hit the country, damaging buildings and communications. Several people were killed by flying debris, and 51 died when the inter-island ferry Wahine foundered in Wellington Harbour. Some local authorities failed to declare emergencies, and communications between the ministry and regions were poor. It later emerged that some local bodies had no civil-defence plan. These were made compulsory under an amendment to the act in October 1968.


In February 1973 drums leaking cotton defoliant were offloaded from a ship and stored in Parnell, Auckland. The toxic fumes affected local residents, and parts of Parnell were evacuated, with several hundred people needing medical treatment. Subsequently, emergency services co-ordinating committees were set up in the main cities to ensure communication between fire services, police and ambulance.

After the hill beneath the suburb of Abbotsford in Dunedin began to move in June 1979, 69 homes were wrecked in major landslips. This catastrophe underlined the need to declare a state of emergency when there was potential, as well as actual, loss of life and property.


The Civil Defence Act 1983 clarified the responsibilities of central government and regional and territorial authorities. It also provided for the appointment of a disaster recovery co-ordinator to oversee remedial work after an emergency. Disaster recovery co-ordinators were called on to deal with the aftermath of some major events that decade, including floods in Southland in 1984, an earthquake in the Bay of Plenty in 1987 and Cyclone Bola on the East Coast in 1988. In 1989 a scientific advisory committee was formed to provide expert advice on natural hazards such as these.

Both national and local civil-defence structures were regularly criticised for inefficiency during the 1980s, and in 1985 the director of civil defence, Wira Gardiner, and his deputy resigned in protest at inadequate government funding and support.

Local-government changes and restructuring of the public service prompted amendment of civil-defence legislation in 1989. Reviews carried out during the 1990s concluded that there was a need for a more integrated approach to national and local planning. As a result, the Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management was set up in 1999.


The Civil Defence Emergency Management Act 2002 outlined a new approach. Local authorities were clustered into regional Civil Defence Emergency Management (CDEM) groups, along with representatives of local emergency and welfare services and ‘lifeline utilities’ such as power companies. Each group had to write a plan taking into account the region’s particular disaster risks. Plans were based on principles described as ‘the four Rs’: reduction, readiness, response and recovery. The plans aimed to reduce risks and manage recovery, and to prepare for and deal with emergencies.


Source: Nancy Swarbrick. 'Civil defence - Evolution of organised civil defence', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 13-Jul-12. URL: