Fire mapping teams go national

Fire mapping teams go national

30 June 2009

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Australia — State and territory emergency services agencies are poised to create location intelligence teams to bolster disaster response capabilities, as a result of experience in the recovery effort following the Black Saturday bushfires.

The bushfires that swept across parts of Victoria on February 7 took 173 lives, ravaged thousands of hectares of land and burned down hundreds of homes.

The fires also wiped out hardware identification information such as street signs and mailboxes, complicating rescue and clean-up efforts as authorities did not know which areas had been searched.

To overcome this, Victoria Police and bushfire response teams worked with a mapping and planning support team (MAPS) from the ACT emergency services agency.

MAPS was set up after the ACT bushfires in 2003 to use location intelligence systems and staff to assist disaster search and recovery efforts.

It was founded by ACT emergency services agency risk management and geographic information systems manager Steve Forbes, who went to Victoria to help set up infrastructure to aid the search effort for the bushfires in the Kinglake and Murrindindi areas.

Mr Forbes said other states were planning to establish their own MAPS teams. “It’s my understanding there are other states and territories looking into how they could start those groups within their own jurisdictions,” Mr Forbes said.

“We’re more than willing to help and encourage others to build their teams.”

Initially MAPS sent a handful of staff to assist with the search effort and to set up location intelligence infrastructure at the Williamstown police station, but Mr Forbes quickly realised he would require more resources for the task.

“What we did was send down some teams on day three and found out the situation was going to be a lot more difficult than first thought,” Mr Forbes said.

“They were using tools created by Victoria Police search and rescue for locating a missing person, which are typically used in the search for one to two people. In this situation, a lot more people were missing.

“Very quickly we realised the sheer numbers coming in of people displaced meant we needed to set up a more solid, well-structured spatial database to assist the people doing that search.”

Mr Forbes increased MAPS’s involvement, with teams of eight location intelligence staff sent to Victoria, and he said 53 MAPS volunteers were used over 43days.

Using software from ESRI Australia, Mr Forbes and his team constructed a map of the area that displayed the parts that had been searched by Victoria Police and emergency response teams.

Emergency services searchers on the ground would use mobile devices and location intelligence equipment to update in real time the areas that had been searched.

This information was used by the operating centre to ensure there was no overlap in areas that had been searched or parts that might have been missed.

“Rather than getting data in at the end of each day when they searched, we were getting it in live as the searches were taking place,” Mr Forbes said.

“There were no street signs, no street numbers but we were able to give hard copy maps to search teams to describe where they were in the world.

“Using GPS technology we could tell the officers where they were on the ground so there was no way they could make a mistake on reporting back on the property they had attended.”

Mr Forbes said this detailed information and documented search response was critical for the inquiries after the Black Saturday bushfires.

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