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BRUCE PEPPERELL: On rethinking emergency management

For ex-navy man Bruce Pepperell, disasters don’t abide by regional boundaries. Bruce tells Newsroom’s Stephen Olsen how innovation and emergency management are converging.

Assumptions about traditional civil defence go out the door the minute you walk into the unassuming building that houses the Wellington Regional Emergency Management Office (WREMO). Apart from looking from the outside more like a restored historic place than the technologically-sophisticated and earthquake-resistant hub that it is, the next surprise is the refreshingly laidback nature of Bruce Pepperell, WREMO’s regional manager and group controller.

For a start, Bruce welcomes the presence and active participation at our interview of his right-hand community resilience expert Dan Neely. Indeed it’s a measure of Bruce’s stewardship of WREMO since it officially sprang into existence in July 2012, that the bottom-up role of community resilience – described by Bruce as a “game changer” – has assumed greater and greater importance.

Bruce: “If we’re truly investing to make people and neighbourhoods resilient we need to flip the ‘pyramid of preparedness’ on its head.”

In practice this has seen a community resilience strategy emerge of national and potentially international benefit.

As well as making this available for other emergency management offices to pick up and scale to levels that fit the engagement and empowerment needs they have, WREMO’s efforts have seen the Wellington region secure designation as an International Centre of Excellence in Community Resilience.

The general theme that Bruce is pursuing is to establish the emergency management practised at WREMO as a “new and better model”.

And if Bruce’s background of 36 years in the New Zealand Navy undeniably lends organisational heft to that pursuit, it is uniquely balanced out by Arizona-born Dan Neely’s background as a Peace Corps volunteer, UN worker and community housing specialist.

As a working duo it’s easy to sense a yin-and-yang dynamic between Bruce and Dan that gets things done and enables others well beyond WREMO to do the same – be that building capacity, increasing connectedness or fostering cooperation.

A converted Wellingtonian, Bruce is in no doubt as to the complex risk profile or hazardscape of the region.

“One of the points of difference – different to Christchurch for instance – is that we’re a portal between the North and South Islands, we are the seat of national Government and we have a brittle Y-shaped infrastructure.”

If a timely reminder of the not-always-supreme situation of Wellington were needed it came the day after WREMO’s first officially opened its doors in July 2012 when a magnitude seven earthquake struck the region. Since then there has also been a one in one hundred year storm, a drought, numerous other storms and flooding events, distant source tsunami, landslides, large rural fires, lifeline utility failures and a hazardous substance spill.

LG_1_Web“Our challenge in 2012 was to create a modern, influential and successful Emergency Management (CDEM) organisation,” says Bruce.

“While much of our time since inception has been spent reconciling current practice against a systematic requirement, developing fresh strategies, and testing these in the community – our success will be determined by our ability to implement our programmes, motivating and empowering individuals and groups in our communities to take ownership of their circumstances and continuity.”

When cajoled a little it’s apparent that WREMO has been racking up the successes.

One of the standout ‘win-wins’ at a readiness level is a low-cost, innovatively-designed water tank jointly developed by WREMO, eight councils in the Wellington region and rainwater tank manufacturer the Tank Guy.

The $105 tank – lightweight when empty – can hold 200 litres and provide enough water for a family of four for up to two weeks in a crisis. In addition it meets all relevant New Zealand food and drinkable water standards, has good UV durability and comes with a ten-year warranty.

To top off the success of this small public-private partnership project it collected a Global Energy Award for Sustainability this year and more than 4000 tanks have been sold.

WREMO’s use of social media is another standout success, most evident in its Facebook presence attracting an enviable and pace-setting 41,388 likes – more than six times the number of its equivalent in Auckland.

Dan modestly defers credit for this to the essential assistance provided by a recruit from Student Job Search who identified what people are looking for on Facebook.

“At a personal level I wasn’t that big on social media,” says Dan. “So the key to an intuitive understanding was to really get into the inherent irreverence of the internet and to retain a distinctive identity when we’re posting.”

For his part Bruce has been more than prepared to push past any reservations about pitching the get-prepared message in ways that will generate the best reception online and translate to action on the ground.

At its best, the Facebook presence has bridged into people’s everyday lives – from sharing observations about how much washing is left on the line after a storm, through to being like a friend in the house when everyone is feeling spooked.

As for action on the ground, this has varied from WREMO supporting a weekend gathering of dress-up Zombies with an old supply of bandages, through to a self-organising community response to a large rural fire impacting on residents of Owhiro Bay.

Dan: “The community response (to that fire) involved a local school being a place for people to gather. It showed how emergent leadership can work ahead of, or instead of, a heavy-handed top-down approach.

“I became the person being directed to take actions, not the other way around. People from within the community exercised their agency and when that happens one of the consequences is that tensions are lowered.”

All of which is music to Bruce’s ears.

From his navy days he’s a great believer in plugging into universal improvement techniques like the US Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence framework available via the NZ Business Excellence Foundation.

It follows that Bruce doesn’t believe WREMO has a “mortgage on good ideas”.

With an eye to the future, fraught as it may well be with extreme events, both Bruce and Dan are encouraged by a rise in interest from candidates wanting to work with WREMO and volunteers doing courses.

It’s safe to say that the days of assuming that emergency management (the older term ‘civil defence’ gets nary a mention) begins or ends with how many torches or first aid kits we have in a dusty cupboard are well on the way out.

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