From floods to fire: Where’s the war footing approach for bushfire?

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From floods to fire: Where’s the war footing approach for bushfire?
The Royal Commission and NSW inquiry signalled the need for an integrated approach, with private tech companies, government agencies and firies.

The La Niña weather cycle responsible for the cool, wet summer we’ve just experienced is over.

It’s good news for the areas of NSW mopping up the aftermath of ‘once-in-a-century’ floods that caused $250 million of damage, triggered an insurance crisis and claimed lives.

But it also represents a missed opportunity to protect those very same regions from increasingly dangerous bushfires.

After the deadly 2019-2020 fires the technology, environmental and emergency service sectors pitched innovative solutions to improve how Australia prevents and fights bushfires. There was no shortage of ideas, nor enthusiasm from the government.

Fourteen months later and with the time bought by La Niña already spent, it’s time to audit our progress. Did Australia miss a crucial moment to start revolutionising our firefighting capabilities?

Funding for Bushfire Technology

Back in August 2020, the NSW Government committed to adopting all 76 recommendations from the Bushfire Inquiry. Technology was central, with a dedicated Bushfire Technology Fund one of the primary recommendations. Fifteen of the recommendations directly mentioned data and technology platforms, and almost all other recommendations had a technology angle.

At the Federal level, the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements had 80 recommendations and a tech focus. It’s encouraging to see that all players recognise how crucial technological innovation will be, but getting that funding to fire tech projects has been slow.

Until now, the real focus has been on recovery. On top of the $1.5 billion in funds for local governments, communities and individuals affected by the 2019-2020 fires, the new Federal budget allocated $61 million to establish a National Recovery and Resilience Agency to help clean up after natural disasters. It’s a very reactive approach.

In the meantime, Australia hurtles towards a 2ºC or 3ºC climate increase, escalating our bushfire risk and severity.

Investment into prevention, protection, and safer, more efficient firefighting should be just as important as funding the recovery. We need to make a move on shipping the forward-facing recommendations.

Unlocking the Bushfire Technology Fund will push Australia into the next development phase for technology that will help prevent, protect, and fight – as was always the intention.

Connected Data Frameworks

Of course, technologists haven’t been sitting idly by.

The Federal report called out the need for relevant, real-time data stored in a central repository. Fires cross borders with ease, and so should the technology informing each state’s emergency services.

In December Kablamo worked with a state fire services agency to overhaul their bushfire modelling framework, moving to a sophisticated cloud-based system. The new platform can pull in virtually infinite data sources; the fire agency has done their part by proactively upgrading their system.

But firefighting involves multiple connected yet distinct stakeholders sharing data and working together. Even if one agency has access to an intuitive data system, their coordination efforts with others are likely to fall back on manual or paper-based processes, word of mouth communication and decisions based on human intuition.

The digital transformation process isn’t complete unless all relevant parties can plug in to connected data frameworks. Until every stakeholder is confident in using the supporting technology, there’s more work to do.

Driving Cultural Change

The hesitation is least partially due to the difficulty of driving cultural change on the ground. Australia’s brave, experienced and incredibly knowledgeable frontline personnel will be key to the success of any technological innovation in this arena.

Firefighters are doing the best they can with outdated systems that force them to rely on intuition and individually-held knowledge. Lives are at risk – I don’t blame them for eyeing new, ‘untested’ technology with caution especially if it isn’t designed with the user in mind.

Both the Royal Commission and NSW inquiry signalled the need for an integrated approach, with private tech companies, government agencies and firies working together to transform the system from the ground up. Beyond acknowledging that it’s the best way forward, we need to start actively facilitating this cultural shift.

Whether it’s establishing an independent body to oversee digital transformation of fire services or mandating minimum standards of tech operation, it’s time to specify what consultation and collaboration actually looks like.

Even if implementation of the best technological solutions began immediately, the transformation of Australia’s firefighting capabilities still wouldn’t be ready for the next bushfire season. And for every season that passes by with little progress, the risks increase.

That’s why the next steps for the tech sector need to be outlined now, well before the next bad season starts. The ideas are there, the talent is on stand-by... when can we begin?

Angus Dorney is the co-chief executive of Kablamo, a builder of cloud-based software.

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