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ICT may help prevent bushfires: Royal Commission

by Aleks Vickovich •
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The Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission has outlined a number of ICT-relevant recommendations in its final report, handed to the Governor of Victoria, Professor David de Kretser AC on 31 July.  

The report calls for broad reform of the ICT capability of agencies responsible for bushfire response and preparation.  It recommends that the “Country Fire Authority and the Department of Sustainability and Environment standardise their operating systems and information and communications technologies with the aim of achieving greater efficiency and interoperability between agencies”. 

The report also makes a number of more specific recommendations with ICT implications.  Firstly it makes recommendations relating to emergency and incident management.  Recommendation 15 calls on the Country Fire Authority (CFA) and Department of Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) to adopt the DSE’s incident action plan summary as the template used by all incident management teams and ensure that the template is included in the online IMT tool Box.

Secondly the report proposes a number of improvements in relation to mapping support including:

  • The provision of free mapping data to emergency response agencies;
  • Increasing accessibility to the FireMap program for incident management team staff;
  • Establishing a joint CFA-DSE training program to ensure relevant personnel are trained in using FireMap including charting fire prediction maps; and
  • The use of FireMap for joint incidents ahead of the 2010-11 fire season.

Improvements in data collection capacity are another key theme of the report’s ICT recommendations.   Recommendation 36 focuses on using data collection methods to assist the investigation and prevention of arson.  It stipulates that all levels of government should “continue to pursue the National Action Plan to Reduce Bushfire Arson in Australia, giving priority to producing a nationally consistent framework for data collection and evaluating current and proposed programs in order to identify and share best-practice approaches”. 

It is recommended that the DSE make significant upgrades to its long-term data collection to monitor the impacts of prescribed burning programs on bushfires and biodiversity.

The report makes 19 recommendations relating to planning and building.  Of these only one has ICT implications.  Recommendation 48 suggests that the Australian Building Codes Board make provisions for free online access to industry standards such as AS 3959-2009 ‘Construction of Buildings in Bushfire-prone Areas and other bushfire-related standards referred to in the Building Code of Australia.

Beyond these IT recommendations, the report singles out telecommunications as an area of necessary reform.   It calls on the CFA to review and improve its communications strategy and develop a program for identifying and responding to black spots in radio coverage.

Recommendation 27 suggests replacing all SWER (single-wire earth return) power lines and 22-kilovolt feeders in Victoria with aerial bundled cable and underground cabling which would reduce risk of fire.  It also recommends more stringent inspection and compliance activity in relation to telecommunications infrastructure.

CFA CEO Mick Bourke issued a statement on Sunday 1 August in response to the report’s recommendations in which he emphasised the role ICT can play in bushfire response and prevention. 

 “New procedures ensure the most experienced and qualified persons from CFA and DSE are in charge of fires and they are supported by improved systems, resources and intelligence gathering to deliver accurate and fast warnings to the community” Mr Bourke said.

“The CFA, along with the Victorian Government and other agencies, will be carefully considering the final recommendations of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission” he added.

The final report of the Royal Commission follows an eighteen-month-long investigation into the causes and circumstances of the bushfires that occurred in parts of Victoria in January and February 2009.

Victorian Premier John Brumby has indicated that his government will accept most of the Royal Commission’s recommendations.  Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu has committed to accepting all 67 of the recommendations if the Coalition is elected at November’s state election. 

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