Australia — Engineer Ray Datodi of Yallingup developed the Radio Activated Bushfire Warning Alarm or Sentinel, after a close call with fire in 2008.
Since its launch in March this year, the system has been modified says Ray and now includes colour display and other refinements.
Sentinel uses GPS, satellite and radio transmission to take a message direct from an incident controller to those homes in danger from fire, flood or cyclone.
Messages can be sent to a single home unit or to every place within an 8,000sq km radius, Ray explains. “That’s the size of the average shire,” he says.
Once a message is sent, an alarm sounds in the home, alerting occupants who can then read the message sent by the incident controller. “So here we have a facility where an incident controller can cover any area within his own shire and warn people of the impending danger and it can be done instantly.”
Unlike State Alert, the alarm system used by emergency authorities in this state, Sentinel is independent of the phone networks. It avoids problems with mobile black spots and network congestion.
However, Sentinel is meant to complement State Alert, not replace it. “FESA have given their advice and input,” says Ray. “So the messages sent across Sentinel would use exactly the same terminology as is used by FESA.”
The “plug and play” home monitor unit now boasts a colour touch screen display, says Ray, which means that Sentinel can also match the colours used by FESA in its warnings.
“One of the major advantages of the colour display is that the default screen, if there are no warnings sent, will be the standard fire danger index – the FDR.”
This is the semi circle divided into six colour segments which indicates the fire risk level for the day. It’s a sign familiar along our road sides.
“So we’re able to put the system to good use because while it’s sitting idle, it will display the fire risk for the day.”
The FDR display is automated, says Ray. “The Bureau of Meteorology update it daily on their website. We’ll download that information and transmit it throughout the system.”
“So every single home alarm will get within that geographic area, will have an updated FDR reading.”
As for bushfire, cyclone and flood alerts will use the standardised messages sent by State Alert, says Ray.
The advantage of this system is, if it’s then also transmitted through the Sentinel network, it will raise an audible alarm which will attract their attention.
Sentinel uses an audible alarm, similar to a smoke alarm, to attract attention. “That overcomes the problems of mobile phone black spots. Even though there’s a lot of information being sent across ABC Radio and mobile phones, if people are tuned out, there’s not hearing it.”
Sentinel will be tested in two areas of the South West. Yallingup in January and Jalbarragup, near Nannup, in February.
The Jalbarragup test will be run with the assistance of the South West Development Commission, says Ray.
“Jalbarragup is a risky area for fires. They don’t even have ABC radio in the area. They are at significant risk from a communications point of view. They don’t have mobile phone and they don’t have radio. (Note: ABC radio in the area is broadcast from Kalgoorlie, via satellite)
One hundred alarms will be put into Jalbarragup and Ray will run a mock emergency to test the system.
“It’s designed from an operational point of view The test is designed for the authorities to check the system’s operation, messaging speeds, user friendliness and ease of operation.”
If by chance there should be a real life situation, the system is fully operational, says Ray and FESA has given approval in advance to use its messages.
The Yallingup trial begins straight after Christmas involves 30 properties and four businesses.
“Some of these have problems with mobile phone reception as well. This is why they’re attracted to this system.
“The trial is a two pronged approach; one is purely engineering. The other is an operational trial.”
“Blind messages” which won’t be seen on the home screen will be run through the system and back to the sender in a closed loop, explains Ray.
“We can compare and look for any errors so we can prove the fidelity of the message.”
Ray has other refinements of the Sentinel on the drawing board. While SWDC is funding the Jalbarragup trial, at the moment, development is self funded, he points out.
In the future, Sentinel could have a mobile component which could not only warn of danger to the home but also alert people travelling in risk areas.
“The mobile unit will operate with a dual memory built in,” says Ray. “Similar to a mobile phone but it’s actually a radio receiver – similar to the home receiver but portable.
“The portable unit would contain the home GPS coordinates. If the home unit is alarmed it will send that message to the mobile unit.
“The other feature is that it will have a roaming facility so that if that person should be travelling through a danger area, it will also go off.”
After evaluation, the system should be ready for use, says Ray. “The plan is for shires to take it on board and install the necessary transmission towers.” Existing communications towers can be used.
Radio tower signals are limited by strength and topography, Ray notes. Repeater towers can be used in the bigger shires. For people who live in valleys, he’s designed small transmission towers which can sit on a hill and flood the gullies.
Eventually, Ray hopes that the system will have built in redundancy. Multiple towers would cover areas in case any one tower is taken out, through fire for instance.
“By putting repeaters around, we can extend the coverage. Satellite isn’t a problem because the Iridium satellite that we’re using covers every square kilometre of the planet.”
Home owners would purchase the monitor which is self installing. “We could eventually have entire South West, the West if not the nation, protected using this technology.”
While Ray had has some discussion with Canberra, gaining support from the Australian government hasn’t been a priority.
“We want to run trials first..at the end of the trials in April next year, we’ll have very solid information available to us.
“At that point, we’ll feel very comfortable to address the national application of the system.”