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The CFA app that has fires raging across Bass Strait

Date

Melissa Fyfe

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VICTORIA'S heavily promoted smartphone application for fire warnings is considered flawed within the IT industry, was not fully tested before this fire season and is difficult to use in the place it is needed most - outside cities.

Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley has revealed the government will review Victorians' use of digital fire warnings and will rebuild the FireReady app, stripping out unnecessary functions and returning to the ''fundamentals'' of what people need in emergencies.

Four years after Black Saturday, the Country Fire Authority's smartphone app continues to frustrate users, including those who faced fire danger on Monday. A Fairfax Media investigation has revealed the CFA's decision to provide a ''bells and whistles'' app undermined its provision of accurate and timely smartphone fire warnings.

This fire season, users have reported strange bugs in the app. One user found a nearby fire plotted on a map of the Czech Republic, while Josh McKinnon - one of the developers who worked on the NSW Fires Near Me app - reported on Twitter that the FireReady app was showing blazes across Bass Strait.

But the bigger problem, according to several app specialists interviewed by Fairfax Media, is FireReady's architecture. Each time the user taps a map or touches a button, the app appears to send a fresh request back to the supporting CFA server. ''The app hits the server really, really hard and it makes multiple requests, possibly for the same thing, like two or three requests,'' says one expert who has studied how the app works.

The experts declined to go on the record because the emergency smartphone app industry in Australia is small. But their verdict was clear: ''It appears this was built as a marketing exercise, more than a safety exercise,'' said one. ''I think it's really dangerous.''

The app specialists said the frequent data requests cause the app to freeze, place extra pressure on the CFA website and require the user to have good internet access - something a person in a fire emergency often lacks.

Since December, more than 600 people have registered mostly negative reviews of the program on iTunes, most expressing frustration at the app crashing and freezing. In response, Victorian fire authorities - after heavy pre-season promotion of FireReady - have urged people to rely on a range of sources for fire warnings.

The Victorian app also has many extra features - such as YouTube videos, photograph uploads and incident alerts - that have made the app memory-hungry and data-consuming.

In a statement, the CFA admitted FireReady's latest version, released in December, sent more data to smartphones and tablets, putting greater demands on its website.

The app experts said the data-hungry nature of the program probably contributed to the meltdown on January 4, when the CFA's website and app froze for most of the extreme fire danger day. The CFA blamed the popularity of the app, which has been downloaded 402,958 times. But the fire service now says that ''more robust testing'' of the December update ''should have been undertaken prior to its release''.

New South Wales Rural Fire Service describes its app as ''lean and mean'', but it did not crash despite facing a greater number of fire emergencies this season. It has had 69 reviews and a four-star average on iTunes. Fires Near Me does not send multiple requests to its server and is hosted separately from the fire service's computers.

The NSW authorities also had Telstra on call in the operations centre to provide surge capacity to websites. In Victoria, the CFA's hosting partner Macquarie Telecom does not sit with authorities in the operations centre. The CFA has since put the app and website on different servers and boosted the capacity of both.

The Department of Justice said on Tuesday the start-up cost of the app was $320,000, but it did not know additional costs thereafter. The app was conceived and commissioned in the dying days of the Brumby government.

CFA sources said the fault lay not with any budget pressure - and not so much with the developer, Melbourne-based company Gridstone - but with those within the government who came up with the app's architecture.

The CFA refused to allow Fairfax Media to interview those directly responsible for the app.

One emergency app developer said FireReady's problems were due to the CFA ''forging forward'' in this area and being world leaders. ''People are trying new things and sometimes it doesn't work.''

Users have also complained that townships appear on the map in the wrong place. The CFA has blamed Apple Maps for these township inaccuracies.

66 comments

  • The CFA app and indeed it's website are a farse. I received an alert on my phone about a fire 3.2kms from home. Try as I may for the next hour, I was unable to determine progress of the situation. I work in the city and need to make a decision on whether I need to get home and inact my fireplan, or not worry as the situation is under control. Even calling the hotline is useless as they refer you back to their website.... Nothing short of a JOKE.

    Commenter
    GMALEC
    Location
    Blackwood
    Date and time
    February 20, 2013, 7:57AM
    • What's the problem with Australian government departments and IT.

      It's endemic.

      Commenter
      sarajane
      Location
      melbourne
      Date and time
      February 20, 2013, 9:17AM
    • You wanted to make a decision on whether or not to leave work and go home to enact your fire plan. So, to put yourself in potential danger. Yep, that makes perfect sense to someone that survived Black Saturday. Not!

      Commenter
      Justin
      Location
      St Andrews
      Date and time
      February 20, 2013, 10:01AM
    • You'd rather he stay at work, and have his house burn down from a minor, low intensity, avoidable, fire ?

      Commenter
      enno
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      February 20, 2013, 11:10AM
    • Enno, better he stay away if he is already away from the situation. How do you know it was a "low intensity" fire? If it was, is irrelevant. A fires status can change extremely quickly based on prevailing weather conditions. Better his house burn to the ground, than other alternatives. Houses can be rebuilt. People cannot.

      Commenter
      Justin
      Location
      St Andrews
      Date and time
      February 20, 2013, 11:22AM
    • This is why i use the old radio scanner . I monitor the local CFA and DSE frequencys . All the information is from the blokes on the spot and is clear and concise without any spin . The good thing about a scanner is you and all 20million residents of this great land can listen without bandwidth restrictions and refresh delays .

      Commenter
      Frank From the Country
      Date and time
      February 20, 2013, 11:23AM
    • Justin - I survived Ash Wednesday...but that doesnt make me an expert, nor does you surviving Black Saturday. A Fire PLAN is a fire PLAN mate. My point is, that with enough warning...that is, more regulr and accessible updates, I am better placed to make a decision. The decision can be anything from racing home (if deemed safe), contacting neighbours or local establishments..... My fire plan is simple....Save myself and my dogs. I am not about to place myself or anyone else in danger. With limited information available however, I may well place myself at risk. A survivor does not make you a master of anything mate!

      Commenter
      GMALEC
      Date and time
      February 20, 2013, 11:25AM
    • Stop relying on phone apps then !! Clearly they're in a market for any moron to develop, whether they're competent or not. Why invest trust in something so futile?

      Commenter
      Kel
      Date and time
      February 20, 2013, 11:45AM
    • So, a fire 3.2klms from your home. You work in town and you reside in Blackwood (in Victoria i assume). I know that area quite well having friends scattered from Woodend to Ashbourne and onto Daylesford. The fire as i recall that was in that area recently was a "fast moving" grass fire. It covered some 600 hectares, backed by some pretty strong wind conditions. Your initial post mentioned "driving home to inact my fire plan." That is to which i directed comment. That was the flaw to which I posted. "Racing home" does you nor anyone else any favours either. Good luck to you if thats your "plan", but i hope its not your only plan.

      Commenter
      Justin
      Location
      St Andrews
      Date and time
      February 20, 2013, 11:58AM
    • Just one more thing GMALEC. The Blampied fire (which was the fire that was in that region) was under Watch and Act. One of the advices in that circumstance by the CFA is - if you are away from the area, do not return. Dont just rely on the app GMALEC, theres other sources - CFA/DSE web pages, CFA Facebook page. Not preaching to you mate, and I'm certainly no expert, but I learned a hell of a lot more about fire, its movement and its fluidity, and its devastating consequences on and after Feb 7th.

      Commenter
      Justin
      Location
      St Andrews
      Date and time
      February 20, 2013, 12:32PM

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