Department of Building and Housing

Recruiting a skilled workforce (and volunteers) from around New Zealand, establishing the leadership structure, and working closely with other agencies enabled the department to promptly assess building damage and ensure the safety and welfare of residents in Christchurch post the February 2011 earthquake.

Massive mobilisation for Operation Suburb

Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment logoWhen the Department of Building and Housing1 (DBH) was recruited to help the people of Christchurch after the February 2011 earthquake, staff had to quickly mobilise and diversify their skills to face the mammoth task.

The Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management instructed Christchurch City Council to assess the damage to the suburbs of Christchurch, but the job was clearly too big for the local authority. “It was a call to arms from the Council there, in terms of focusing on the worst affected areas, particularly in the eastern suburbs,” says Malcolm MacMillan, Earthquake Response Operations Manager at DBH.

“Our two main tasks were firstly to assess the building damage and ensure the safety of the people in the suburbs, and secondly to check on their welfare and connect them to the right services. We were primarily the first emergency response that many people living in residential dwellings saw.”

Drawing on its contacts, DBH gathered together a workforce of 750 people from all over the country, including building inspectors from local councils, structural engineers from local government and the private sector, and DBH staff. “We also had volunteers, and we usually gave them welfare roles if they had good people skills.” Operation Suburb was also aided by a Colonel from the NZ Army’s Logistics Group, staff from the Ministry of Social Development, and Red Cross personnel.

Getting a team of this size into Christchurch and then transporting them around the city was an issue because of the damage. “But we were given help, such as Air Force Hercules flying people in, and we got a lot of help from the army moving us about in their vehicles. They were marvellous.”

The first thing DBH did was establish a leadership structure, for which they used CIMS (Co-ordinated Incident Management System), a framework for managing the response to an incident involving multiple agencies. The use of this system has been identified as one of the major factors contributing to the success of the operation.

Operation Suburb workers were then split into 220 teams. During just nine days, the teams assessed more than 72,000 houses in the worst-affected suburbs, and this huge logistical task was performed without the use of technology. “We gridded up the city on a map and drew lines through it with a highlighter each night indicating which streets had been completed that day. It was that crude but effective,” says Mr MacMillan.

Another significant part of the task was intelligence. “We needed to report to the Civil Defence Controller every day. Data collection was a big part of the job and we had to do this with no computers, no technology. We would have about 17,000 assessment reports coming in every day and we had to crunch through this information at night in order to plan the next day. But it was all done through manual recording and analysis.”

Being effective is getting tangible results that add value for people. Efficiency is smarter planning at the front end.

The teams identified homes that were too unsanitary or dangerous to be occupied, reported where emergency sanitary services were required, and connected residents up to the appropriate welfare or health services.

Mr MacMillan says that attending to the welfare of people in this way was “uncharted territory” for the organisation, which usually functions as a regulatory body for housing and building activity. Memories for most centre around helping people, he says. “Some of the stuff we came across and the situations some people were living in were pretty grim. But being there, able to help, was both humbling and rewarding.”The strong existing relationships between building and welfare agencies is seen as one of the major success factors, along with the willingness of staff to work long hours and come together for a common goal.

“A takeaway lesson for the Department would be the fact that we normally operate through a consultative process, but this was not conducive to this task. We had to apply more of a ‘command and control’ style of leadership to the situation,” he says.

Mr MacMillan says other organisations, both in New Zealand and overseas, could learn from DBH’s experiences in Christchurch. “Local government, for example, could use our experience to base their response to a future local emergency, albeit on a smaller scale.”

Based on an interview with Malcolm MacMillan, Earthquake Response Operations Manager, on 20 June 2012.

1: On 1 July 2012, the Department of Building and Housing was integrated into the new Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

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