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An Innovative Early-Warning System For Bushfires

You can sense the frustration in this first-hand account of the design and development of an effective, targeted and most of all affordable natural disaster warning system. Developed specifically in response to those terrible bushfires of a year ago, everyone who sees it says "fantastic!" So why is it languishing in some bureaucrat's "in" tray?

by David Ambry
Engineering Manager,
Nexus Technologies Pty Ltd

It is difficult to travel anywhere in Victoria without coming across reminders of the fires that took so many lives on Black Saturday, February 7th 2009.

The tragedy in one way or another touched us all and the depth of the generosity shown to those directly affected was truly admirable.

Like so many others I also wanted to do something that would help prevent loss of life when, as it surely will, similar circumstances arise in the future.

As an electronics engineer I thought that there must be a better way to get information to those in areas of high risk, to help them make the right and timely decision about when to activate their prepared fire safety plan – that is, whether to leave while it is still safe to do so, or to stay and defend.

The inspiration.

The inspiration that I was hoping would come finally arrived on 14th October, when I heard on the news that as part of the Unified National Bushfire Strategy there would be firstly; a common Fire Danger Rating (FDR) and that secondly; the ABC was to be responsible for broadcasting the FDR and fire threat warnings by radio. I immediately thought of using radio to carry the warning information in a digital format to a dedicated receiver to those in areas specifically at risk of fire at the time. As any designer knows, the inspiration is the easy part...

What would it look like?

The initial concept of the receiver included the following requirements:

• Be able to display in real-time the current threat level for the area that it is physically located in,

• Be inside the radio footprint of a carrier that would remain reliable throughout the duration of the emergency,

• Have backup power to continue to provide service in the case of loss of mains power,

• Be operationally reliable, physically robust and suitable for low-maintenance installations in rural areas,

• Be easy to manufacture, cheap to buy and easy to install.

The choice of carrier

I had heard something of Telstra’s telephone-based National Emergency Warning System (NEWS) system by this time but thought that it had some severe limitations that would be hard to overcome. It seemed to be intrinsically complex and I felt that local infrastructure damage and high traffic use in emergency situations would make it particularly vulnerable to failure, just when it is most important that the messages be delivered.

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