The Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission has heard damning evidence of poor communications on Black Saturday, resulting in an inadequate and untimely flow of bushfire reports and alerts to the emergency services and the public alike. This resonated with me as I was struck, while trying to source accurate information to help my sister who was in a fire area, by the haphazard content and presentation of information on official websites on the day of the fires.
Whatever is to succeed the much-criticised stay or go early policy, there will continue to be a pressing need for far more timely and accurate bushfire threat information to help the authorities and the public make appropriate decisions in an unprecedented bushfire threat.
Given Victorias status as one of the worlds most bushfire-prone places, the fact that we are facing possibly the worst fire season ever this summer, and the apparent effects of climate change in increasing the threat, we can and should aim to lead the world in the intelligent application of information technology.
So far, the changes mooted to information systems have nowhere near the scope and depth necessary to properly address the increased probability and impact of the bushfire threat. Evidence given to the commission indicates that the authorities may accept the need to integrate the CFA and DSE websites, but this is mere tinkering compared with what is required.
There is great scope for the intelligent deployment of modern geographic information systems (or geo-informatics) to improve the availability, timeliness and precision of information about actual and potential bushfire activity. The increasing probability and impact of extreme bushfire events necessitates a “step change” in the level of investment in information technology and specifically geo-informatics to help manage the risk.
The aim should be the construction of an integrated bushfires information system, in the form of a website or portal, that would be used by the public and authorities to manage their bushfire risk. The public should, to the fullest extent possible, be able to access the same information as is made available to the authorities. There must be no misguided sheltering of citizens from the reality of what is happening on the ground.
The basic medium for the presentation of this information should be the interactive map. The technology could use existing media such as Google Earth or Google maps, but preferably would be purpose-built to suit Australian conditions.
The system should be capable of displaying integrated information from all relevant agencies (state and federal), but particularly from the CFA, DSE, VicRoads, police, local councils, the Bureau of Meteorology, and satellite and aerial thermal surveillance imagery.
Issues of copyright in data should be sorted through, but if they cant be resolved quickly, the Government must exercise its statutory right to use copyright materials to protect the public.
Information should be as precise and accurate as possible given modern capabilities. To this end, all CFA and DSE units should be equipped with up-to-date GPS technology, and all reports submitted by those units should be “geo-tagged” with GPS co-ordinates wherever possible.
The information displayed should be as close to real time as possible.
It should be clear which agency is responsible for each item of information. To maximise the freshness of the information provided, automated sources of information should be relied on.
The investment should be developed and managed jointly with other states and territories and the Commonwealth, but given Victorias unique vulnerability, history and resources, Victoria must take a lead. There may be scope for collaboration with other governments overseas, notably Californias.
An appropriate expert organisation such as the CSIRO or a third party should design and operate the continuous automated production of projected fire-path maps for critical fires. Such a system would build on existing technology allowing for the production of maps showing the projected path of the fire front of critical fires given known variables such as fire location and actual and likely weather such as temperature, wind speed, rain etc.
Residents and possibly other members of the public should be able to post sightings or reports of fire in an unverified layer of the map.
While it must be accepted that no system relying on volunteers will be perfect, to minimise the risk of vandalism of the site, suitable safeguards such as logging IP addresses or perhaps establishing a system of screened volunteer fire reporters could be established.
The investment must be in terms of both equipment and expertise. All relevant staff should receive training in the use of information technology and geo-informatics in the reporting of fire and in the communication of relevant details to the public.
The authorities must commit to sourcing highly expert specialists in what is an emerging field, recognising there may be a need to pay over the odds.
The internet was famously designed to survive a nuclear holocaust. Expertly harnessed, it can play a central role in the dissemination of accurate, timely and precise information about actual and likely bushfire activity.