Australia faced one of its most devastating bushfire seasons last year. The flames tore through thousands of homes and razed nearly 42 million acres of land, according to the National Geographic. Prime Minister Scott Morrison termed it the “Black Summer”.

The states of New South Wales and Victoria were among the hardest hit. As climate change is set to worsen the frequency and intensity of such bushfires, how can Australia better respond to and predict such crises?

Silvia Silverii, Chief Information Officer of the Victoria State Emergency Services (VICSES), discusses how her team works with other agencies to use data to respond to emergencies.

Emergency dispatch system

The Victoria State Emergency Services is a volunteer-based agency that supports firefighters in responding to bushfires. It also responds to natural disasters such as floods, tsunamis, storms, earthquakes, and landslides.

When an emergency is reported through Victoria’s Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority, a dispatcher is listening in and taking note of keywords, says Silverii.

The emergency response system’s algorithms then send out alerts to the relevant agencies based on the keywords, she adds. Keywords like ‘fire’ and ‘burning’ would trigger an alert to the city or country fire authority, while a word like ‘injured’ would send the alert to Ambulance Victoria.

That’s why the dispatcher asks as many questions as they can, says Silverii, so they can ensure the “right combination of responders” turn up. The responders tap into geospatial and weather information on their way to the emergency site to respond in the best way possible, she adds.

Emergency Management Victoria has recently come up with a mobile app for its supplementary alerting system. This allows the agency to contact volunteers with more flexibility, Silverii says. Volunteers can also easily see emergencies in their vicinity and respond via the app.

Data analytics training

VICSES is “very data rich”, says Silverii, and plans to enhance the data capabilities of its staff and volunteers. That could pose a “real challenge”, she adds, as their volunteers range from youth to seniors – creating a wide range in digital literacy.

The agency acknowledges “that not everybody can make that transition and nor do they need to,” she says. “There will be some tools that require very skilled people, and so it’s not really available to every single volunteer.”

“There’s no point in saying all 5000 volunteers have to be really good at doing geographical mapping,” she adds.

VICSES plans to enroll a few select volunteers into geospatial data courses based on their interest. These volunteers can then become subject matter experts in their units, Silverii says.

Revamping IT infrastructure

VICSES’ priority last year was making sure its staff could work remotely. “We spent the first part of the year, after we got out of the bushfires, making sure that we could transition all the staff to work from home,” Silverii says.

Fortunately, its infrastructure was already mostly cloud-based – so the transition only took a week or so, she adds. Its second priority was securing its environment, which it works closely with the Victorian government’s cybersecurity team to achieve.

The agency plans to improve the automation of data collection next, Silverii shares. It also plans to revamp some antiquated systems and move to more cloud-based systems. That will reduce the duplication of information and prevent silos, she adds.

Data will be crucial in responding to natural disasters quickly and effectively. VICSES’ efforts to train its volunteers and enhance its IT infrastructure will prove essential in the future.