Technology, bushfires and AM radio
The connected life isnt' hugely helpful in the bushfire zone
As Australia's heat-wave returns, I’ll be in the Blue Mountains in NSW, surrounded by eight hectares – around 20 acres – of mostly uncleared bush, contemplating both the benefits and shortcomings of modern emergency services communications.
Here with two smartphones and a laptop with a mobile broadband connection, there are plenty of ways to watch what’s going on. However, they all fall short in some fashion or other.
The laptop is useful for checking new fire updates posted at (since I’m in NSW) the Rural Fire Service’s incident map. However, it’s rash to rely solely on that site. If an emergency breaks out, it can struggle (Victoria’s Country Fire Authority site crashed under a heavy load on January 3).
State on fire: the NSW RFS Incidents page on 10 January, 2013
The problem is that people don’t sit at their computers all the time. Sure, the sites can be browsed from a mobile, but that’s inconvenient and illegal if you’re driving a car.
Which brings me to the second modern emergency advisory: the mobile phone. SMS alerts are sent to people living in the path of a catastrophic fire.
The system works, but it has its own limitations. Coverage outside Australia’s big cities can be spotty. If you live away from mobile coverage, the SMS alerts might not reach you. If you’re a tourist passing through a danger zone, you probably won’t even be on the alert list.
Another issue that affects both Websites and SMS alerts is the timeliness of the information. We don’t have live, 24-7 remote sensing. Satellites like MODIS can tell us lots about the progress of a fire on a daily basis, but live information comes from people on the ground.
These are the same people whose main preoccupation is fighting the fire – which is why I was interested in the idea of using UAVs to help map fires in real time.
Even drone-gathered information would, however, have to get from the ground to the public – which will mean someone has to check it for accuracy before release. Since we don’t have the drones yet, we’re stuck with today’s approaches.
As well as the people actually standing in front of the fire-front (raise a hat to all bushfire volunteers!), there are aerial spotters in planes and choppers, fixed watchers in towers, and (where they’ve been installed) remote cameras.
Information from hundreds of fires has to be collated at headquarters, checked (because nobody wants to spark a panic or, worse, send evacuees in the wrong direction), and published, with appropriate decision-making by senior personnel and contact with police and other authorities.
On hot, windy, days like those we're currently experiencing in Australia, any of the hundreds of fires still burning could take off suddenly. It’s not hyperbolic to state that a fire can escalate to a catastrophe in minutes rather than hours. A strong wind can also send glowing embers many kilometers from the fire-front.
All of this can happen far quicker than the supposedly-instant online world can react.
What about social media? Shouldn’t I also turn to Twitter to look out for dangers in my vicinity?
Yes and no.
I know who to look for – people who live in the right place to see the smoke or the flames.
I don’t follow the Rural Fire Service Tweets because they’re most often links to the incident page that I already watch.
The rest of Twitter is as much use as two hundred kilometers away: people Tweeting their well-wishes are nice, but not informative; people re-Tweeting obsolete warnings from four hours ago merely noise, as are those who clog the feed with links to news stories.
The CSIRO has told the Australian Financial Review that 12.5 million tweets relating to the bushfires have been sent this week. That's great for someone able to cope with the "big data" analysis, but it renders the medium useless to the individual.
Mainstream news publishers are especially guilty of feed-clogging. If I wanted to rely on Twitter as my bushfire information source, I’d have to find some way of muting media feeds that are either image-feeds (they don’t actually say “Send us your pics of the catastrophic fires now engulfing your community!”, but they may as well) or news stories that are running half-an hour behind ground truth.
All of which means my most important technical aid on an extreme fire danger day is also the oldest one to hand: an AM radio tuned to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s local service, present both in the house and in the car, and able to break into its programming in real time when there’s an emergency.
I really can’t see that changing for years. ®
Text alerts = useless
In the run up to Cyclone Yasi we received a government text alert advising that we should evacuate. That may sound pretty useful but it wasn't. It didn't even hint as to where we should evacuate to.
A quick word about our geography. You can't evacuate to the east. That's the Pacific ocean and it's also where the cyclones come from. You can't evacuate to the west either. There isn't really a road to anywhere and if there was was you'd just be trying to outrun the cyclone. There are roads to the north and south but the cyclone was so big that trying to leave the area was pretty pointless.
I do agree about the radio. The ABC do a superb job on updates and you know the info is as sound and current as possible. Radios, as mentioned in the article, work anywhere and you don't need mains power to use them. Yasi damaged all the power, phones, Net, water, rail and road infrastructure around here but the radio towers survived and kept on working.
Old tech is sometimes the best option.
a 98% population coverage
See, this is the flaw in your argument. The mobile networks may cover 98% of the population (city dwellers) but the people that usually get affected by fire, flood and cyclone often live in the areas (the bush) that make up the other 2%.
The other problem is that the alerts only go to Telstra customers. Optus and Voda users don't get them, or so my usually reliable source tells me.
Official + Timely? Not all that likely..
Disclaimer: while I'm a Fire Service officer, this isn't (naturally) the view of the Fire Service...
The words from the article about how the information flows from the fire line are the nub of the matter. I might get on the radio and report something going south to the sector commander who will maybe take some steps to see if it is as bad as I say. Then when the sad truth of the matter is revealed s/he will forward that up the chain of command to the Incident Management Team.
As an IMT person myself - any news from the ground is wonderful and is pretty much immediately listened to and fed into operations and planning. When this system is working well, the most optimistic lag time is probably 5 or so minutes from an appliance OIC reporting it to the Incident Controller being made aware of something. Without ANY valid statistics to back this up - I'd suggest it is more likely that 10 or so minutes would realistically elapse..
Since the sad events in Victoria and the ensuing investigation - here in South Australia our IMTs now have a media liason person. So if the Incident Controller decides something needs to be done with respect to notifying the general public - the media liason bod gets tasked. I don't know what the lag through the ABC is, but it would be minutes at least.
So you'd be (realistically) looking at 10-15mins shrinking down to a very optimistic 5 or so minutes if all the ducks are lined up... So timely isn't part of the equation here.
The other part - the "official" part - is also a problem. The decision to notify (via SMS and/or radio) isn't "automatic". Someone (in the case of SA: someone at the regional office) decides if there is a real issue. This means a delay until the first arriving officer makes a Situation Report. That SITREP passes up through the chain of command quite quickly, but again - there is a delay. Being volunteer brigades, it might take 4-5mins to respond, a further say 5-10mins to drive to the incident. By which time a fire might be going "quite well". So even the alert that something is happening might be delayed by quite a bit. Not being part of the (paid) regional office staff I can't comment on what the "official" processes are to authorize an alert, but I think that bit happens pretty quickly.
The other thing that should be said is that people (like me) who live in bushfire prone areas do know that mobile phone coverage is dodgey, where their evacuation routes are; and most importantly wouldn't be waiting for an SMS to decide to leave.. Certainly here in the Adelaide hills you know when it is going to be a bad day the moment you open the door and step outside!