News from the CRC

Science is helping our emergency services keep us safe.

Science is helping our emergency services keep us safe.
Science is helping our emergency services keep us safe.

Making a difference

By Nathan Maddock. This article first appeared in Issue Two 2018 of Fire Australia.

Conducting research is one thing, but applied research that partners scientists and emergency management experts together, resulting in real world outcomes, is another altogether. Here are four examples of research from the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC that are making a difference for our emergency services.

Sharing the risk

Assessing risk ownership for managing natural hazards is complicated, particularly as natural hazard risks can resonate across long timeframes and have multiple organisations responsible. Research is helping government and emergency management agencies identify and allocate ownership of risks, how risk owners are responsible, and what they can do to manage them.

Through the Mapping and understanding vulnerability and risks project, led by Prof Roger Jones and Celeste Young at Victoria University, a framework has been developed to support better allocation of risk ownership as part of strategic planning and risk assessment activities. Developed in consultation with CRC partners, the Risk Ownership Framework for Emergency Management Policy and Practice uses a values–based approach to provide a starting point for understanding and clarifying risk ownership as part of strategic risk planning and assessment activities.

Emergency Management Victoria is incorporating key elements of the framework into the emergency risk assessment process that is used to assess emergency risks across the state. Greg Christopher, Senior Officer Emergency Risk, believes the research enhances emergency risk management activities.

“It is applicable to all types of emergencies and consistent with the ‘all communities/all emergencies’ model,” Mr Christopher says.

“It provides clarity for shared responsibility; an important element of managing emergency risks, and provides a method for identifying disparate risk owners at different stages, beyond the agencies that have traditional emergency management roles.

“I would recommend the framework to anyone involved in emergency risk management.”

This means that the research will be helping to guide priority projects and programs for risk mitigation.

The research is also being referenced at the federal level, informing disaster policy work for Emergency Management Australia, and changing the way that people think about risk ownership.

Key elements of the process have been mapped to the risk assessment process in the National Emergency Risk Assessment Guidelines. Greater application of the risk ownership process is expected if the key concepts of the research are integrated into the guidelines. 

Carbon abatement through better fire mapping

Australia’s tropical savannas are extremely fire prone, with many millions of hectares burnt every year, contributing greatly to Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Sophisticated fire mapping and modelling of fire severity, undertaken by the Tools supporting fire management in Northern Australia team, led by Adjunct Prof Jeremey Russell-Smith and Dr Andrew Edwards at Charles Darwin University, is helping fire and land managers assess greenhouse gas emissions and develop carbon abatement plans.

Previously, fire seasonality was used to assess emissions, with fires occurring in the latter part of the northern fire season (after 31 July) releasing double the emissions into the atmosphere than fires occurring earlier in the dry season. This calculation is based on years of data. But research has developed a new greenhouse gas emissions abatement methodology, using actual fire effect, leading to improved accuracy of the calculations of greenhouse gas emissions.

With the emergence of new industries such as carbon farming, bushfire management is rapidly changing in northern Australia, requiring decisions to be prioritised based on risk. With such large areas to cover, web-based mapping is integral.  

Andrew Turner, Director of Strategic Services at Bushfires NT, says the organisation uses the savanna mapping tools daily.

“They are crucial to all aspects of fire management – planning, mitigation, suppression, monitoring, and evaluation and reporting,” Mr Turner says.

It is only through the extensive collaboration process undertaken by the research team that this fire severity mapping process has been possible.

Strength in the face of high winds

Most of the damage from cyclones and severe storms occurs to older houses, but much can be done to reduce this damage. Research through the Improving the resilience of existing housing to severe wind project, led by Prof John Ginger, Dr David Henderson and Dr Daniel Smith at James Cook University, has shown that improvements can be made that can strengthen houses to reduce damage, as well as save money through the reduction of insurance premiums.

Suncorp Insurance wanted to know more about the vulnerability of the houses in northern Queensland, explains Jon Harwood from Suncorp. The insurance company knew that some types of houses built before 1980 were the most vulnerable to cyclones, as they were constructed before the building code was developed for cyclones, but they were surprised by the other findings generated by the study.

“What we were surprised about was the water ingress failures across all ages of houses, whether they were built to code or not,” Jon said.

A majority of claims – 60% – were due to a lack a preparation. These were small claims that could have been easily avoided if the appropriate mitigation action was taken before a cyclone.

The research recommended a range of retrofitting options that reduced the chances of damage occurring.

“The research gave us a clear evidence base to show that retrofitting and strengthening homes really has a great cost-benefit analysis,” he said.

Suncorp took these research findings and created the Cyclone Resilience Benefit, which rewards homeowners who have undertaken work to strengthen their homes and reduce the chances of damage. More than 30,000 people have accessed the benefit, with the average saving on premiums $100. Some have saved over $400.  

Queensland Fire and Emergency Services is also benefitting from the study, using findings to improve the work of its rapid damage assessment teams, which operate after major disasters to collect building damage data. This enables a focused and coordinated response, as well as better planning for event recovery. Specialist advice and lessons learnt are also provided by the team at pre-cyclone season briefings for emergency managers across Queensland to QFES, as well as other local, state and federal agencies.

A model for relief and recovery

Ensuring communities are safe and resilient in the face of natural disasters is fundamental to emergency management organisations.

Research led by Dr Melissa Parsons and Dr Phil Morley at the University of New England is developing the Australian Natural Disaster Resilience Index, which has already begun to improve the understanding of disaster resilience, helping communities, governments and organisations to develop the capacities needed for adapting and coping with natural hazards.

While the study is assessing resilience across the country, Emergency Management Victoria is embedding the national findings to develop a better understanding of resilience at the state level. It has used the national research as baseline data to build a ‘living’ resilience index within the organisation, explains Research Coordinator Dr Holly Foster.

“We have used the research as a basis for the Victorian platform, adapting it to our resilience needs in Victoria,” Dr Foster says.

“Its primary function is as a relief and recovery tool, exploring the characteristics and attributes of communities to enable a better understanding of what relief and recovery would be required if an emergency were to occur. We want to be able to proactively meet community needs.”

It is only through the collaborative approach taken by the research team that mutually beneficial outcomes have been possible, with Emergency Management Victoria’s learnings feeding back into the larger national approach.

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Index of Editions

Issue Two of Fire Australia for 2018 includes a look at two checklists that are helping emergency management teams when there's a breakdown in communication, the findings on community preparedness after three catastrophic bushfires swept across NSW in early 2017, four utilisation case studies that are helping agencies and incident management tools to enhance communication and capability
Issue One of Fire Australia for 2018 includes a recap of the International Day for Disaster Reduction, investigates what catastrophic flooding could look like in Sydney, asks if your coastal community can cope with rising sea levels, highlights our research in incident management development and looks at predicting blow up bushfires.
Issue Four 2017 of Fire Australia includes research on including animals in emergency planning, details from AFAC17, new priorities in natural hazards research, and a Black Saturday case study to develop guidelines for improved community messaging in bushfires.
Issue Three of Fire Australia for 2017 features new prediction software for predictions of bushfire spread, how NSW's geography curriculum allows students to become agents of change for community resilience, suggestions for reducing the risks involved in prescribed burning, research on the impacts of severe wind during Cyclone Debbie, and new natural hazards science at the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC.
Issue Two of Fire Australia for 2017 features information about a weather phenomena called a mountain wave that produces severe fire behaviour, an analysis of flood fatalities in Australia, what we can learn about disaster preparation from Indonesia, and leadership for our emergency service volunteers.
Issue One of Fire Australia for 2017 features firestorms, disaster resilience, fire preparation in Bangladesh and the International Day for Disaster Reduction.
PhD progress, human factors and decision-making capabilities, asbestos risk and the role of pharmacies in disasters are showcased in the Spring 2016 edition of Fire Australia magazine.
The Winter 2016 edition of Fire Australia magazine highlights important research including reducing hazard impacts with smarter spending, fire modelling and wind behaviour as well as the rewarding experience of PhD student placements in the sector.
Mitigating disasters: how damage from floods, fires and storms can be prevented through careful planning and investment; a new approach to flood forecasting using remote sensing data; and case studies from the CRC are highlighting paths to integrate bushfire science into government policy and planning.
Developing a smartphone app to measure fuels for bushfire, 2015's International Day for Disaster Reduction, a case study on the Be Ready Warrandyte initiative and a look at what could happen if Adelaide was hit by a large earthquake.