Bushfire fighters are counting on a smartphone app to instantly disseminate emergency information this summer with the help of victims at the front line.
The Victoria Country Fire Authority's FireReady app has already been downloaded by 70,000 users since it was released last year. It notifies users of fire dangers in their area, and allows them to photograph bushfire activity – with GPS co-ordinates and a timestamp – and submit it to authorities.
The Black Saturday tragedy emphasised the need to direct information to where it is most needed, according to CFA digital media manager Martin Anderson. A GPS-enabled smartphone app provided the opportunity to completely overhaul the traditional approach of information dissemination.
Previously, users had to trawl through long lists of events on the CFA website where the State Fire Control Centre published fire warnings gathered by 400 trained officers roaming the state.
Now information on users' nominated areas of interest is directly pushed to the app. The app was developed by Victoria-based firm Gridstone.
The geo-coded photos were a form of "community intelligence gathering" or crowd-sourcing, Anderson said, which would assist authorities. The photos can't be viewed on the app, but are published on an emergency information website. At the time of publication, there were no user photos for viewing - however the technology has been used to document floods and fires.
The FireReady app "shifts the paradigm" of information control in fighting bushfires, according to the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre project leader, Dr Christine Owen.
Historically, "information vacuums" have cost lives, she said, and agencies must not restrict the flow of information.
"One of the really difficult and challenging things in a Black Saturday context is trying to get that situational awareness: where the fire is; what it's doing; where it's going," according to Owen.
"That situational awareness was not available in real-time on Black Saturday."
"[The information] wasn't even making it through the command-and-control channels, because people were too busy on the ground to be providing situation updates and reporting in; there was a whole lot of other information that was not necessarily being tapped into across agencies."
She was excited about the app's potential to improve the bushfire response efforts, but warned there were some weaknesses. These included users having to refresh the page for the latest information; limited mobile coverage or internet bandwidth to use the app in bushfire conditions.
It is unclear how the Fire Services Commissioner will address these issues, and capitalise on the app's opportunities. A media spokesperson did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The expected heavy usage of the app during the upcoming bushfire season will test the agency's computing power. Already during severe storms last month the CFA pushed out almost 200,000 notifications to FireReady app users.
To handle these increased loads the CFA, the Department of Justice, the Department of Sustainability and Environment will consolidate their hosting capability and move it to the cloud, according to CFA's Anderson.
Ultimately, technology is a double-edged sword, Owen said.
"One of the things fire agencies have found as they move further along the information highway, is that fire management isn't just about putting a fire out, but it's actually about information management and relationship management," she said. "It's about managing consequences and inter-dependencies."
"A new piece of technology always has positive and negative effects. It may resolve the problem it was intended to solve, but then it can also make other parts of the work either more difficult, or more challenging.
"The adage is you might be solving one problem in one place but you're just moving it to somewhere else."