The horrors of Australia’s bushfires committed many of us in technology to apply our skills to helping reduce future risk to humans, flora and fauna, and property. But without serious buy-in from the fireys and the federal government it won’t work.
This commentary piece was published in The Australian with the title Tech will build capacity to fight bushfires, but we need to change the system too. You can read the original here, but the piece in its entirity is below.
The recent announcement of Minderoo’s ambitious technologically-driven FireShield was a moment to celebrate, as was the commitment by the federal government to direct $800m to tech innovation.
The horrors of Australia’s bushfires committed many of us in technology to apply our skills to helping reduce future risk to humans, flora and fauna, and property. With these announcements, technology as a go-to solution was elevated to a place it has long deserved.
It has become clear that a century-old approach to fire management and fighting needs to undergo the same digital transformation that has reshaped so many areas of our lives for the better. FireShield is a welcome step in this direction, but without serious buy-in from the fireys and the federal government it won’t work. This is both a frontline and a national problem, and needs a frontline and national solution.
Our fire services are first-rate, and their knowledge and reality needs to be genuinely engaged by any technological rollout. Similarly, our fires don’t respect borders or bureaucratic fiefdoms. For this reason, fire solutions need overarching federal support to ensure that firefighting capabilities — and powerful tools such as real-time data sharing — aren’t stopped, as they are now, by borders or agency boundaries.
This isn’t like a moonshot for bushfires — a clear, one-off objective. Our team has spent the past eight months independently developing technological strategies to combat Australia’s fire blight and our learnings have taught us that managing and fighting fires in Australia is a complex, collective effort that will require respect and understanding for inter-agency operability and cross-border realities.
Our fire services have developed in a largely tech-free environment, and in doing so have done the best they can with manual resources. We can’t, and shouldn’t, expect these brave women and men to instantly pivot from a deeply learned manual approach into a new technological paradigm. This is about cultural change and bringing them on a journey to a technologically friendly future.
For this reason, it’s critical that our state and territory fire services are involved in shaping how the technology will fit into their reality. Call it avoiding the risk of tech neglect: forgetting to speak to the real stakeholders, many of whom in an instant will save you months or even years of fruitless tech development by pointing out realities that are glaring to them but invisible to you.
Reports from a recent showcase of potential tech solutions said it all. One presenter actually suggested the solutions could be implemented this fire season. That’s more than optimistic, it’s impossible. Moreover, the solutions relied on a data feed of “on-the-ground truth” that currently doesn’t exist.
For technology to fight fires, it is imperative that we take our fire services with us — not do this to them. The first, and most important, question is how do you effectively engage so that this vast and dynamic human knowledge base becomes a partner in the journey, not a victim of the transformation.
If we don’t spend almost as much money on bringing these diverse teams and organisations along for the digital transformation journey, you can pretty much expect any technology adopted to fall far short of its potential. And that would be a shame, because the technology on offer now, and in the immediate future, will be game changing.
Beyond the software and cloud servers that bring together artificial intelligence, satellites, data lakes and frontline communications capabilities to integrate diverse agencies even across state lines, we are looking at a future that could feature some truly cool inventions. Turbine-aided firefighting uses remote controlled bobcat-size machines with turbine fans to turn water in a fine, fire-extinguishing mist that also keeps firefighters safe.
Going further, autonomous drone swarms could aid in rescue missions and fire suppression. Even sound waves might serve as a future firefighting tool. But this future will never arrive if we don’t do three things now:
Establish a federal mandate to ensure technological change will be driven across all of Australia’s firefighting organisations in a deeply consultative and collaborative manner;
Go even further in the pursuit of world-best technology by establishing AI services at a national level focused solely on applying AI to predicting and fighting fires;
Establish a walk-before-you-run approach across firefighting organisations to effectively change culture while ensuring that operational basics such as single sign-ons to systems are universal across agencies. Doing otherwise and expecting firefighters to make the leap into drones, sound waves or AI is like offering Netflix to someone with a rotary phone.
If we apply our best minds and budget to a truly comprehensive digital transformation of our firefighting capabilities, Australia 2030 will be the envy of the fire-management world. The alternative is too upsetting to consider.