High-tech to combat burns: Southern Tablelands RFS gear up

AUTOMATED sprinkler systems, purpose-built portable weather stations, frontline live-streaming and Wi-Fi wherever you want it.

This is the future of rural firefighting, and a quiet pocket of the Southern Tablelands is leading the way.

Windellama, population 322, falls within the largest brigade area in the Southern Tablelands NSW RFS zone with more than 725 sq km of land under their watch.

It’s also one of the most remote.

With the region teetering on the edge of a predicted severe bushfire season, RFS volunteer David Edworthy gave the Post a run-through of the latest technology set to aid the region’s fire responders.

In his words, “it’s a whole new ball game”, and one made possible by a recent switch, by major telcos Telstra and Optus, to the 700MHz network.

A series of new and old technologies have combined under the new network to change the face of rural firefighting, Mr Edworthy said.

“The good thing now is between Goulburn and Braidwood you’ve pretty well got full coverage ... this means we can now send information up to the fire control centre, but we can also get our high end weather data because it’s fast. That’s the big shift,” he said.

"We can now send information up to the fire control centre, but we can also get our high end weather data because [the network is] fast..." - David Edworthy, RFS Volunteer

Here’s how it all works:

An antenna system, designed and built in the local area, has capabilities to remotely link up to 4G Telstra and Optus towers, providing no cell reception but, instead, high speed WiFi signal.

This WiFi signal is a vital player for onground communications, enabling a flow of information between Fire Control Centres, Incident Management Teams and fire crews.

Where emergency services would have been unable to make a call or, in some cases, coordinate resources (except via radio), they can now livestream video footage and access updated information.

The WiFi antenna, when paired with another innovation, can even influence the structure of resources.

Regionally-built weather stations, installed on homes and fire sheds across the zone, provide updates of weather conditions and fire danger at the touch of a button.

A portable unit ensures fire crews can access the same information from the firefront, or any area needed.

An antenna system, developed in the Windellama area, was put to use during the November 21 Sandy Point Road bus rollover.  Photos: David Edworthy

An antenna system, developed in the Windellama area, was put to use during the November 21 Sandy Point Road bus rollover. Photos: David Edworthy

Keep your eye on the FDI

THE weather stations not only provide information on current temperature, wind speed, gusts, humidity and dew point, but are able to calculate Fire Danger Index (FDI) using a simple formula of temperature, wind speed and humidity.

Despite popular belief, Mr Edworthy said temperature is not the largest factor in determining fire risk. Rather, low humidity and high wind speed are the cause for concern.

“People are counterintuitively saying “It’s not a bad fire day because it’s not very windy and not that hot”, but if the humidity is low there is no moisture in the air, which means the fuel wants to dry out. If a fire kicks off it’s going to burn as bad as if it’s a windy day with high humidity.

“The fire control guys now can actually look at the humidity on the graph and if we know that they have been low for a few days, we will put more crew in that area to say ‘look, if a fire kicks off it’s going to be a really bad one’.”

It’s this basic knowledge of what factors impact fire behaviour, and the ability to interpret trends, which Mr Edworthy said would be a vital tool for both fire crews and the public.

Further advancements in satellite technology will too aid fire efforts, he explained.

“A satellite that has only been up for about six months is a game changer for fire behaviour management. With the new satellite we can drill down through 16 layers of the atmosphere ... we can actually see if there is any dry air coming across the fireline (and adjust resources in response).

“The fire control centres are using these but for us on the ground to have access to that information is really important as well.”

RFS Southern Tablelands zone manager Peter Alley said crews were already benefitting from the upgrades.

“We’re already using the weather station stuff and installed a number of weather stations around the zone last year,” Mr Alley said.

“We are just recently coming together in terms of having all that data fed into the fire control stations all around the zone. That in itself is a great benefit to us, to have all that weather data displayed right in front of us and being able to keep abreast of what the weather is doing in all our zone.”

Mr Alley said the Zone was preparing for the upcoming season as normal.

“We are preparing as we normally would - training is finished now for the year, the trucks are all serviced, equipment is ready to go and brigades are ready to go with knowledge on all the weather and conditions,” he said.

Technology in action

A BUS rollover on Sandy Point Rd last month was an example of the new technology in action, Mr Edworthy said.

Thirty defence force personnel were injured in the accident on November 21.

Police from The Hume Local Area Command, Fire & Rescue NSW, and the RFS attended the scene as well as two helicopters and multiple ambulances.

But, with no cell reception, the emergency responders were unable to make calls out.

“It was probably one of the biggest multi-agency events this area had seen and there was no coverage. No one had any phones,” Mr Edworthy recalled.

An antenna system, developed in the Windellama area, was put to use during the November 21 Sandy Point Road bus rollover.  Photos: David Edworthy

An antenna system, developed in the Windellama area, was put to use during the November 21 Sandy Point Road bus rollover. Photos: David Edworthy

A quick trip home saw an antenna set up on scene, and within minutes the incident was connected to incident management control teams. Footage was live streamed, calls were made.

“If you would have said to me four months ago that I could be sitting in this room and looking at live satellite images, or I could transmit livestream data from the fireline, I would have said you had rocks in your head,” he said.

“When they first released the 700MHz, no one realised how far it went and no one realised how fast it was.

“Regardless of price, cost, everything else, it’s not theory anymore, this is what’s happening, this is the new era, the new reality.” 

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