By pointing out that “real-time decision making needs relevant real-time data”, this report specifies the need for central data management. Current data inconsistencies limit the ability of fire-fighting teams to make informed decisions.
On 31 August, 2020 - the same day that the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements published its interim report - 555 hectares had already been burnt out by a bushfire near Bellingen. This is a day before the area’s start of the Bush Fire Danger Period (1 September). Bushfires are not just last year’s problem to be archived away.
Before diving into the observations of this interim report, it is worth pointing out that it is now too late to implement any practical response to the Royal Commission’s interim report in time for this fire season. As the Bush Fire Danger Period begins, fire services hold off any significant changes to their systems and processes - there is no time to install new efficiencies and retrain personnel. It will be six months before our services can look to substantively implement any recommendations.
Yet the interim report contains recommendations that can affect and improve the lives, livelihoods and natural environment for all Australians. So let’s see what the interim report says we should be looking at building and improving, ready to implement for the 2021/2022 fire season.
Unlike last week’s NSW Bushfire Inquiry Report, this is not a final report, but rather interim observations that will be added to as councils put forward their proposals over the next month, with final investigative hearings being conducted later in the year. This interim report outlines the gaps in state collaboration, particularly around how data is collected, managed and shared. It highlights the dangerous discrepancies between each state, which can be so dangerous to border towns like Mallacoota.
By pointing out that “real-time decision making needs relevant real-time data” (p.12), the Royal Commission specifies that data needs to be stored in a central repository. As anyone using multiple fire apps will recognise, the symbols, language and information is significantly different across state lines. This dangerous inconsistency limits the ability of fire-fighting teams to make informed decisions. The “harmonisation of collection, storage and analysis of data, and national systems to provide particular information services” (p.12) is rightly viewed as a necessary action for the prediction, planning and management of fires as well as the safety of evacuees and fire crews.
Australia has all the technology, data and talent to build a national bushfire database and a consistent view of fire-fighting activities and real time bushfire data across State and Territory borders. It is cultural change which has held us back until now.
The interim report makes a note of how the private sector can help: “Closer collaboration between agencies, and between agencies and the private sector, could help resolve these issues.” (p.20)
This is a great step. Australia absolutely should be the world leader in FireTech - we have more to lose and more to gain than most other countries. Combined together, the private sector and public sector have a wealth of talent, experience and speed that can be put to this task. Indeed, we’ve built prototype platforms to address some of the challenges at hand.
Recognising the need for consistent, centralised data comes as no surprise to those of us in the tech world who are always assessing the data maturity of organisations. The findings of the NSW Bushfire Inquiry Report take these data observations and imagine what can be built with the clean, consistent data: a digital replica of the state and its fire conditions where real-time information can be gathered quickly and reliably. It is highly likely that the final report from the Royal Commission will outline something similar on the national level. As each state has their own digital replica, with the same data sources as each other (wind, terrain, temperature, etc.), and the same interface to communicate condition changes or appliance (trucks, planes, etc.) locations, teams will be ready to tackle the ever-extending fire seasons.
What we need is a national vision for real-time data sharing that leaps borders the same way fires do. A border on a map doesn’t shift the winds, or change the terrain. By treating the country as a whole, by working to overcome cultural barriers and by providing all the states and territories with a consistent view of real time data and AI-generated insights, we can help to eliminate the types of fire season we witnessed in 2019-2020. This interim report is the first step of many, and we need to move quickly.