Public safety
Australia
Wallcliffe Volunteer Fire Brigade

Improving wildfire prevention and firefighting readiness

Wallcliffe Volunteer Fire Service Brigade

David Galloway works as a volunteer with the Wallcliffe Volunteer Fire Service Brigade in Western Australia. Volunteer brigades are the front line for firefighting and prevention across the State.  Large fires covering hundreds or thousands of hectares are coordinated by State Government agencies however small local fires often up to 100ha are managed by local brigades. The Wallcliffe brigade has immediate responsibility for an area of about 50 x 20 km but often collaborates with other local brigades across the region. 

Getting up-to-date information for wildfire response

Local brigades have many challenges when responding to fire. Typically, fires are reported by a member of the public through emergency phone calls. The information from the public is often inaccurate. The first fire crew to arrive has to locate the fire and advise the control centre about the location of the fire, its size, what response is needed, weather conditions and fuel load. Lack of up-to-date information can cost valuable time. Every minute can mean the difference between containing a fire or having a blaze get out of control. The brigade’s response is largely coordinated using radios, paper maps and notebooks which limits efficiency and accuracy.

Using Mergin Maps to improve fire response 

David was familiar with the capabilities of GIS from his background in environmental resource management. He and others in the brigade are developing simple and affordable solutions on QGIS using Mergin Maps to collect and push data to phones and tablets in the trucks. He tried proprietary solutions including QField and ESRI products however these were either too expensive or did not work effectively. Mergin Maps was easy to set up and use, the sync worked well, had generous support for not-for-profit volunteer organisations, and support was reasonable. 

Currently David and his team are using Mergin Maps in different ways. The initial project was to improve the supply of basic information about the conditions around the fires, including the capacity to survey and report on the condition of tracks (suitable for any vehicle or only 4WD), location of water supplies, property boundaries and contours. Mergin Maps enables recording this information “on the fly” in the field, allowing responders to push this information to the control centre and out to the other trucks. The current project is developing the capacity to map the position of the fire front in an active fire, in real time, based on reports coming in from the trucks or what is mapped on Mergin Maps in the field. All of this is important because conditions can change dramatically as the fire progresses impacting on where resources are needed and the risk to firefighters.

 

Getting right information in time is crucial for firefighting in field. Mapping water supplies, property boundaries and road accesibility with Mergin Maps. Photos courtesy of Wallcliffe Volunteer Fire Service Brigade

In addition to using Mergin Maps as part of active firefighting, it is being increasingly used in fire prevention activities. When planning fuel reduction burns in environmentally sensitive areas, special habitats and plant disease risk areas are mapped using flexible data forms and dedicated symbology. It is also being used to log when and where burns have occurred, building the capacity to better plan for fires. 

The ability to work offline is also a major asset for the team because much of the area in their oversight is quite remote and data connections are often poor. “Having phones loaded with information is much better than what we have been using, however poor data connection is probably our major issue in trying to capitalise on the capacity of Mergin Maps being able to effectively push data from the field,” said David. “Despite this limitation it’s great to be able to say to the people in the trucks – this is where we are going to get water, and they can find it using the offline map”.

Fire spread modelling scenarios in QGIS. Gas Bay, Australia
Photo courtesy of Wallcliffe Volunteer Fire Service Brigade

Future uses for fighting wildfire with Mergin Maps

So far, the Wallcliffe brigade has used Mergin Maps for data sharing, fuel reduction burns and local community outreach. It is being developed, in parallel with continued use of the existing paper maps and radio-based fire management, for real firefighting. The biggest limitation is poor data connection which will hopefully improve as the telecom companies build upgrades to the networks. 

The next step being developed is to use real-time vehicle tracking for multiple vehicles on the fire ground. This would greatly improve response times, for example to send the closest vehicle to a “hop-over”, where the fire jumps across a containment track.

The State Government agencies, which coordinate multi-brigade and multi-agency responses to big fires have quite a lot of sophisticated mapping and communication technology”, said David, “however for the local brigade, where a rapid and effective response can stop a small fire becoming very big and destructive, Mergin Maps is becoming a very useful tool”.

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