Christchurch, New Zealand

Community First: Christchurch’s Emergency Response

New Zealand Police

October 24, 2012

Cultural outreach and community engagement helps police and social services be prepared to help newcomers during crisis

“If you want to communicate well with culturally and linguistically diverse communities following disaster, don’t wait until something really bad happens. Get to know those communities now,” is the key message of a recently published report, Best Practice Guidelines for Engaging with CALD Communities in Times of Disaster, for Christchurch City Council.

It was exactly this type of thinking and action that enabled the New Zealand Police and Settlement Support New Zealand (SSNZ) to respond quickly to newcomer and culturally diverse communities in Christchurch in the aftermath of the February 2011 Earthquake.

Knowing our communities

In the aftermath of the earthquake, the Police set up their earthquake response headquarters in a Buddhist temple with assistance also coming from mosques and other ethnic community hubs – a telling example of the goodwill already established between Police and ethnic communities in Christchurch.

“The Police have put an emphasis on recruitment of people from ethnic communities and building better communication lines with ethnic communities that in the past may have felt marginalized” explained Joris de Bres, Race Relations Commissioner. “That hard work paid off when the Police were able to quickly respond to the varying needs of communities in Christchurch – from getting Police on the ground that could speak different languages to having frontline staff who are sensitive to specific customs and culture.”

Underscoring the Police’s increased capability and capacity in working with ethnic communities is the NZ Police Ethnic Strategy Towards 2010 – Working Together With Ethnic Communities Race. Joris de Bres says, “What’s particularly impressive about the Police, is that not only are they one of the first public agencies to develop an ethnic strategy…, but they also have the highest level of commitment to the strategy and they have resourced it well.”

Despite Settlement Support New Zealand (SSNZ) headquarters being taken out of action by the earthquake, availability of ongoing SSNZ service was made possible by Immigration’s national office Settlement Unit staff that were able to pick up the services. All migrants who had arrived in New Zealand in the previous four years and had indicated they would settle in the Christchurch region – a total of 11,454 migrants were contacted through a mass mail out and via other media channels in various languages.

Within 40 hours of the earthquake, a Settlement services helpline was set up for four weeks to all newcomers affected by the earthquake. In the four weeks following the earthquake, the helpline service received 429 enquiries from newcomers, ranging from people worried about their applications, passports and immigration status, to requests for language assistance and by the third week to more complex enquiries, especially from people who were feeling stressed and emotional. Such calls generally took more time, required a response that involved interpreters, and required follow-up communications with various support groups and individuals in Christchurch.

Lessons Learned

A wide range of positive actions occurred which helped government and non-government agencies communicate with communities and vice versa. The two examples above highlight those actions which were widely identified as having worked really well, that is:

• Use of bilingual workers, either already working in an agency locally or brought in because of their linguistic and cultural backgrounds as additional workforce;

• Having culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) adviser roles within agencies. These people generally had the trust of community leaders and contact was two-way, conveying information as required; and

• A number of support services provided outreach contact to their client base, and needs identified were able to be passed on to agencies. Having a copy of the client / member database which was accessible was critical to enabling this to occur.

Moreover, since established communication channels and relationships were two-way, certain communities such as the Chinese, Korean and Filipino communities were able to respond well to support agencies, such as providing the Police with an emergency support centre with accompanying resourcing, as well as responding to the information needs of their communities.

Under situations of stress, even when migrants speak acceptable English, they may prefer to receive information in their own language. This makes the response of agencies, such as the Police and SSNZ, with frontline staff capable of engaging with diverse communities in different languages and sensitive to specific customs and cultures, all the more valuable in emergency situations.


The NZ Police Mäori, Pacific and Ethnic Services (MPES) received three awards at the Institute of Public Administration NZ (IPANZ) Public Sector Excellence Awards in 2012.

New Zealand Police won two category awards, both for MPES-led initiatives. The Mäori, Pacific and Ethnic Wardens programme was a joint winner of the Te Puni Kökiri Award for Crown-Mäori Relationships and the Cultural Response Team, which worked with victims’ families from 20 nationalities in the aftermath of the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake, won the Office of Ethnic Affairs Award for Excellence in Diversity. The Cultural Response Team also picked up the State Services Commissioner Award for Excellence in Responding to the Canterbury Earthquakes.

Police Commissioner Peter Marshall says these successes are extremely welcome but should come as no surprise to anyone who saw the Cultural Response Team in action in Christchurch, or who has had dealings with the Mäori, Pacific and Ethnic Wardens.

This Good Idea will be featured in “Marketplace of Good Ideas” at the 2014 Cities of Migration conference in Berlin. Learn more about the conference.

Making it Work for You:

  • To communicate well with newcomer communities following disaster, don’t wait until something bad happens; get to know those communities now.
  • Interagency collaborations and existing interagency networks, with the capacity to mobilise existing networks already established pre-quake worked well for sharing information.
  • Bilingual workers were a key bridge between communities and agencies.
  • Liaison directly with community leaders by agency representatives was a great means of communicating.
  • Off-site database back-up, and preferably hard copy back up with multiple agency representatives so that the contact details of clients and volunteers, agency contacts or community leaders were accessible even when offices were damaged or cordoned off.

For this Good Idea contact:

Rakesh Naidoo, New Zealand Police
180 Molesworth Street, PO Box 3017
Wellington, New Zealand,

Interview with Superintendent Wallace Haumaha, New Zealand Police National Headquarters