Technology adds to bushfire-fighting toolbox

Technology adds to bushfire-fighting toolbox

18 November 2014

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Australia —  As the incidence and severity of ­bushfires threatens to increase over the next few decades, emergency service agencies are using predictive analytics to identify, and protect, the areas facing the biggest, most immediate danger.

Experts have welcomed the ­development as a valuable addition to the firefighting toolbox, but also expressed concerns that it must not be treated as a “silver bullet”.

Owing to record hot, dry conditions, NSW is likely to ­experience an increased number of days with extreme fire danger, ­according to a recent Climate Council report. It said “disaster risk reduction will play a ­critical role in reducing risks to people and their assets”.

Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW) has kicked off Project MIINDER, a proof of concept to calculate the base risk of every property in the state, and then use other variable information to accurately assess immediate danger in a given location.

Its chief information officer Richard Host said the huge computational capability would inform them about where their firefighters could be most strategically deployed in the short, medium, and long term.

“What is the property made of? How close is it to a national park? What’s the vegetation around it? What people live in it? What area is it and what’s the ­history of that area? What’s the slope of property?” Mr Host said.

“We take that information and overlay it with variable data such as the direction of wind, the fuel load of the nearby bush, the temp tomorrow, the distance from an emergency ­services vehicle . . . there’s no limit to the number of data feeds we can find over time.”

The prototype is expected to move into the second phase next year.

Christine Owen, a researcher at the Bushfire CRC and lecturer at the ­University of Tasmania, said the ­predictive technology could be used by less experienced staff to make faster, more informed decisions.

However, as people begin to rely on the ­technology, it could also lower ­critical decision-making skills.

“In other complex tech systems, like air traffic control and aviation, taking the critical thinking human out of the loop has resulted in some serious ­accidents,” Dr Owen said.

“It’s about trying to make sure those resources are there as tools but that they don’t dumb down the operators.”

Careful with new technology

Mr Host said while the firefighter spirit has permeated the ­IT department culture – it was one of the first agencies to deploy Google Chrome boxes and move to Microsoft Office 365 – the staff treads lightly when it comes to rolling out new technology.

“Firefighters will pull you out of a burning house, no matter what, and do whatever’s required to save someone.

“That same can-do attitude motivates us. We understand we’re part of ­something big and important,” he said.

“We’re in a hurry to improve our systems over-and-over again so ­emergency services have the greatest possible capability to make the ­community as safe as it can be. ­

“However, we’re cautious, not crazy. We think these decisions through very carefully.”

In that context, it is poised to become one of the first agencies to transfer its corporate and administration systems – including SAP ­Emergency Services, SAP ERP, Oracle RAC, and Geospatial information – into a hosted environment in the NSW Government Data Centre.

It has signed a five-year agreement with IBM, which allows data centre capacity to be purchased based on demand.

“We’ll be getting a whole lot more bang for our buck” Mr Host said.

There is more in the pipeline. It plans to eventually relocate parts of the triple-zero phone system to the ­government data centre, and next year it will develop smartphone apps for firefighters and volunteers.

It is also working on a $10 million enterprise management project, to be rolled out early next year to house the information of its thousands of fleet and equipment items.

RFNSW also oversees one of the world’s biggest implementations of SAP’s Emergency Services system, supporting 100,000 people, which services two other agencies, the Rural Fire Service and State Emergency Service.

Bushfire CRC’s Dr Owen said ­technology had precipitated the ­creation of new roles in firefighting.

“Before 2009, and the creation of the intelligence cell, these decisions were made by gut feel,” he said.

“But since then, and the affordances of these new technologies, there’s now a need for a new kind of person who’s actively pooling these disparate bits of information, making sense of it and thinking about the implications.”


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