Using our research

Real world research driven by end-user needs

Case studies and testimonials

The Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC is an end-user driven research organisation. End-user engagement is central to all aspects of the CRC’s operation. We generate knowledge for the benefit of our partners and deliver relevant research supported by active end-user engagement throughout the 'Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC Research to Capability' lifecycle.

Better warnings to ensure action

Better warnings to ensure action

With the multitude of warnings issued when an emergency hits, how can emergency services ensure their critical safety advice is heard and acted upon, rather than dismissed as noise?

Research undertaken through the Effective risk and warning communication during natural hazards project at the Queensland University of Technology has helped emergency services warn communities by actively testing the wording and structure of warning messages to better understand how messages are understood and translated into direct action. The team, led by Prof Vivienne Tippett, has supported broader initiatives in emergency communications and warnings, not just for individual organisations, but also at the national level by providing reviews and assisting with the development of evidence-based warning doctrine.

Changing the focus of warning messages has been the key, believes Anthony Clark, Director Corporate Communications at the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.

“This research is a really important piece of the puzzle. It is a game-changer for us as we had been sending out information and warnings in a format that met the needs of the emergency services. This research tips the process on its head and puts the community first and foremost. Emergency services are forming warning messages with the community in mind, so we can get the best possible response from the community in a time of disaster,” Anthony says.

In South Australia, the Country Fire Service has used the findings to change its warning messages, ensuring they are simpler and easier to understand, explains Fiona Dunstan, Manager Information Operations.

“We’ve looked at our warnings and restructured and reprioritised the content to make sure the critical information was upfront. This ensures timely, targeted and meaningful information is provided to the community,” Fiona says.

Country Fire Service warnings are now much shorter – previously they were three pages long. Now the vital information is on one page.

The New South Wales State Emergency Service has also looked at how its warning messages are structured.

“We have seen some great outputs in the warnings space from this research,” says the NSW SES’ Andrew Richards.

“This will help us deliver our message to affected communities better so we can elicit the desired response during a disaster.”

In Queensland, the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services have used the research findings to influence community behaviour when the communities’ capacity to act rationally may be impaired.

“The research results are highly valuable and provide emergency service agencies with sound principles to follow”, explains Hayley Gillespie, Executive Manager Media at QFES.  

“These include using clear, direct language, structuring information in easily understood formats, and linking agency communications to other credible information sources. All of these strategies, and others the research covers, will help people to quickly make sound decisions that could save lives and property.”

QFES have also drawn on the expertise of the team to inform its strategy development for the future.

The study has seen close collaboration between the research team and the emergency services sector, with other organisations to have their warning information reviewed include the Inspector-General of Emergency Management Queensland, Emergency Management Victoria, Victoria State Emergency Service, Country Fire Authority, the Department of Fire and Emergency Services Western Australia and the Bureau of Meteorology. Nationally, the research was used to support the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience Handbook on public information and warnings and the companion document Choose Your Words, while the Emergency Media and Public Affairs conference recognised the research as having an impact on community safety, with a highly commended award in its 2018 research category.

SEQwater has also benefited from the science and has sought input from the team on how to improve its messaging about releasing water from dams during a flood. Community surveys show that these revised messages are more trustworthy, and achieve more proactive action.

Further highlighting the wide-reaching implications of this research, ABC local radio in Wide Bay, Queensland, is also engaged with the research team, looking at ways it can improve its emergency broadcasting.

Strength in the face of high winds

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.

To help homeowners make these improvements, the Queensland government has created the Household Resilience Program based on findings from the research. The Program, which is available to Queensland homeowners who reside in recognised cyclone risk areas in a home built prior to 1984, will provide a grant of up to 75 per cent of the cost of improvements, with a maximum of $11,250, allowing for the upgrade of the roof structure, protection of windows and strengthening doors – key areas at risk of damage during strong cyclonic winds. 

The insurance industry is also benefiting from the research, with Suncorp Insurance learning more about the vulnerability of the houses in northern Queensland, explained 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 per cent – were due to a lack of 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.

Better fire danger ratings

Better fire danger ratings

The latest fire science, including Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC research, has been used to develop the pilot National Fire Danger Rating System. The update currently underway is the first major update to the system since it was devised in the 1960s. 

Initially developed as CRC research after a recommendation from the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, support from the Commonwealth government led to the successful transition from a collection of CRC managed research, to a fully owned and developed prototype system managed by the industry for the benefits of the community.

The new National Fire Danger Rating System prototype was trialled by the New South Wales Rural Fire Service over summer 2017/2018 to better incorporate extreme fire behaviour. The revised system will be more comprehensive, providing provide a greater ability to understand and predict localised fire danger risk with greater scientific accuracy, rather than applying the same fire danger across large areas, as is currently the case. In coming years when the revised system is in operation around Australia, all fire agencies will be able to better predict bushfire danger, leading to better warnings, more efficient use and distribution of firefighting resources, improved community awareness of risk, and increased safety for both firefighters and the community. 

The CRC has contributed contemporary science to the prototype system on fire weather, vegetation conditions, fire behaviour, ignition likelihood, fire suppression, fire impact, communicating risk, urban planning, decision making and mitigation. 

The trial of the prototype is a significant demonstration of the successful utilisation of CRC research into the sector: CRC partners AFAC and the NSW Rural Fire Service now own the ongoing use of the research outputs. As the new system is piloted and integrated into the sector, the CRC will continue to play a critical role, providing vital science and evidence that underpins the new system. 

Emergency planning for animals

Emergency planning for animals

Australians love their pets – and this influences how people behave during an emergency, with emergency services incorporating findings from research to influence their plans and policies during disasters.

Led by Dr Mel Taylor from Macquarie University, the Managing animals in disasters project identified best practice approaches to animal emergency management. This has given emergency management agencies the data they needed to make better informed decisions on planning and targeting of resources. 

While the research phase of this work is complete, there is a strong utilisation focus, with the team actively engaged with emergency service agencies, government departments and local community groups. 

Working with the Blue Mountains Animal Ready Community, a range of emergency planning resources have been developed to highlight the importance of planning for animals during emergencies. The resources have been used by 23 New South Wales Rural Fire Service brigades across the Blue Mountains, as well as by the Springwood Neighbourhood Centre and the Mountains Community Resource Network. A community guide for establishing an animal ready community is now in development.

Building on this was Blue Mountains Animal Ready Community’s first community seminar, held in October 2018. The project team was integral to the involvement of the seminar, which saw over 60 people attend to learn more about how to manage their small and large pets, livestock and wildlife during an emergency, as well as how to best be prepared beforehand. Resources developed by the project that identify local animal owners’ planning and preparedness needs were distributed, and the day was MC’d by Dr Taylor.

Also in the Blue Mountains, the team partnered with the Winmalee Public School, with a student art competition developed into a book to reinforce why animals matter and why they need to be included in emergency plans.

In Tasmania, animal populations have been mapped in partnership with the Tasmania Fire Service and the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment. This has informed evacuation planning, traffic management plans and capacity planning.

RSPCA Queensland has used the research to inform its policies, while in Victoria, the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning has used the findings to inform its risk assessment processes.

Horse SA has also used the research to support its emergency planning and gain funding for appropriate equipment, explains the organisation’s Executive Officer Julie Fielder.

“This research has provided evidence which we have used to advocate government around planning, and has helped us shape our messages to horse owners during emergencies,” she says.

Nationally, the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience has drawn on the research to develop a section on animal management in their updated evacuation planning handbook.

State animal emergency management plans at three primary industry departments – the Victorian Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources, Western Australia Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development and South Australian Department of Primary Industries and Regions – have also been revised in consultation with the team.

The research has also received several awards in recognition of its success, taking out the inaugural Emergency Media and Public Affairs conference research award as leading research making a difference in public safety in 2018, and as an integral part of Blue ARC’s highly commended award in the NSW community category at the 2018 Resilient Australia Awards.

Sharing the risk

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. But 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 at the institutional scale project, led by Prof Roger Jones and Celeste Young at Victoria University, a framework has been developed to support the 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 has incorporated key elements of the framework into the emergency risk assessment process that is used to assess emergency risks across the state, enhancing emergency risk management activities. Applicable to the all communities/all-hazards model, the research has provided clarity for shared responsibility as an important element of managing risks, providing EMV with a method for identifying disparate risk owners at different stages, beyond the agencies that have traditional emergency management roles. 

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, or published as a companion document.

The team has also worked as part of a collaborative partnership with the National Resilience Task Force, part of the Commonwealth Department of Home Affairs, contributing to the Australian Vulnerability Profile, alongside conducting a policy briefing for the Commonwealth Department of Environment.

The research has also been recognised internationally, taking out the best poster award at the 2017 European Climate Change Adaption conference in Glasgow, while the UK Climate Impacts Programme invited the project team to present at their adaption in practice series as part of their 20th anniversary celebrations.

School-based education for disaster risk reduction

School-based education for disaster risk reduction

Educating children and youth about disaster risk reduction and resilience is now front and centre around Australia, based on research that has identified the valuable role that children play in the safety of their households and communities.

The importance of educating children on hazards and disasters was recognised both in the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission and the 2011 National Strategy for Disaster Resilience. The CRC research project Child-centred disaster risk reduction, led by Prof Kevin Ronan (CQUniversity) and Dr Briony Towers (RMIT University), has evaluated disaster risk reduction and resilience programs in Australian primary and secondary schools to find out how these programs contribute to the mitigation and prevention of disaster impacts on lives and property.

Bushfire education has been evaluated in several states, including New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia. In Victoria, the Country Fire Authority and State Emergency Service used the research to design a student-centred, inquiry-based, disaster resilience education program for students at year levels 7, 8 and 9. The program was assessed to inform strategies for scaled implementation in schools across the state.  

CFA’s Survive and Thrive program for students in Grades 5 and 6 has also been evaluated in both Anglesea and Strathewen, with the findings informing the development of community-based approaches to bushfire education to specific high-risk areas around Victoria. The Strathewen component has also demonstrated the value of bushfire education for children in fire affected communities and will provide a guiding model for future recovery programming. 

Harkaway Primary School is learning from the success of the Firestorm program at St Ives North Public School in New South Wales, and implementing a similar, project-based program, which is providing a valuable opportunity to study the processes and outcomes of this approach. 

NSW Fire and Rescue have used the research to review their school-based Fire ED program. Based on this, firefighters now know the specific topics they need to educate children on to increase fire awareness and safety.

The NSW Rural Fire Service is also using the skills, knowledge and expertise of the research team in a number of ways. A change in NSW primary school curriculum now sees bushfire studied across the state by years 5 and 6 every two years. To assist in this educational change, the NSW RFS has redeveloped their schools’ education webpage to reflect inquiry-based learning principles, with information for teachers and students.

The NSW Rural Fire Service also drew on the expertise of the research team to inform the development of the ‘Guide to Working with School Communities’, which supports volunteers and staff to effectively engage primary school students in learning and action for house fire and bushfire safety. The Guide follows the earlier publication of a CRC ebook, based on the same principles that if you educate children on fire safety, families and the wider community will also benefit.

The Bushfire Patrol program run by the Department of Fire and Emergency Services Western Australia has also been evaluated, with the refined program helping to ensure that children have the knowledge and skills they need to participate in bushfire planning and preparedness in their own homes. In the remote Kimberley region, DFES used the learnings to design a specific education program suitable to such a unique area. The North West Bushfire Patrol program was created to be geographically and culturally appropriate for the area, which has a large Indigenous population. The program covers all year levels of primary school and includes appropriate learning activities for each age group.

The benefits are flowing outside traditional emergency management agencies too. The Australian Red Cross is using findings of a mixed-methods, pre-post study to refine its disaster resilience education program, the Pillowcase Project.

Nationally, CRC researchers are actively engaged in the Disaster Resilience Education for Young People initiative, in partnership with the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience. This initiative has allowed the project to actively engage with educators from across the country and to contribute to an online resource.

This overall set of evaluations represents stepped change in the first five years of this program of research, with the next steps geared towards enhancing and implementing disaster resilience education in schools, with the goal of providing additional benefits for children, schools, households and communities.  

Further highlighting the international benefits of this research, emergency service agencies overseas have taken on board findings to develop their own child-centred disaster risk reduction programs.

Intangible value

Intangible value

Not everything that is important can be assigned a dollar value; just as the benefits of mitigating risk do not always add up to monetary values. Intangibles are important to land managers and community members alike, but how are these values, such as protecting biodiversity, taken into account when making land management decisions?

With the 2015 Productivity Commission’s report on natural disaster funding arrangements in Australia finding that there is an over-investment in post-disaster reconstruction and an under-investment in mitigation, the Economics of natural hazards project led by Associate Prof Atakelty Hailu and Dr Veronique Florec at the University of Western Australia has helped natural hazards managers justify the use and allocation of resources for mitigation efforts.

The study has developed a tool for generating estimates of non-financial benefits and undertaking an integrated economic analysis of management options for floods in Adelaide and for prescribed burning in private land in South Australia’s Mount Lofty Ranges. This value tool allows land managers to assess intangible benefits such as lives saved, health and environmental benefits, and social values. A small prescribed burn might cost a lot of money, and take time and resources, but what the burn protects cannot be measured just by money.

This has enabled South Australia’s Department of Environment and Water to not only take into account the costs of undertaking prescribed burning on private land but to also effectively measure the benefits to ecosystems, lives and the way of life of people who live in the area.

Previously, these non-market values were not taken into account, underselling the benefits provided by prescribed burning in some areas.

This work has benefited other CRC research, with the tool used by a Geoscience Australia team to inform the cost-benefit analysis of flood mitigation work in Launceston.

Looking back can prevent future flood deaths

Looking back can prevent future flood deaths

CRC research is informing community flood warning campaigns, emergency services training and national policy initiatives, with the An analysis of building losses and human fatalities from natural hazards study led by Dr Katharine Haynes at Risk Frontiers, Macquarie University, investigating the circumstances of all flood fatalities in Australia from 1900 to 2015.

The study explored the socio-demographic and environmental factors surrounding the 1,859 flood fatalities over 115 years, finding distinct trends in relation to gender, age, activity and the circumstances of the death. These trends were analysed in the context of changes to emergency management policy and practice over time.

The New South Wales State Emergency Service has used the findings of the research for its FloodSafe community campaigns and training, while the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services has used it to inform its If it’s Flooded, Forget it campaign.

The 2017 campaign by the NSW State Emergency Service featured a series of videos, with real people recounting their experiences of attempting to drive through floodwater, the consequences of their actions, and why no one should ever drive through floodwaters. Each video was backed by data from the research showing who is most at risk during a flood.

Andrew Richards at the NSW State Emergency Service says it was vital that the campaign was backed by research.

“As a consequence of risky behaviour, flood fatalities and rescues are a constant issue for emergency services. We are trying to increase public safety, to educate people to make the safe choice, and we think that the best way to achieve this is by highlighting true stories about what has happened to people when they have tried to drive through floodwaters,” Andrew said.

“The research from the CRC was key as it showed to us where we needed to focus our safety efforts.

“Thanks to the research we were able to target effective audiences that are prone to driving into floodwater, as well as providing statistics and evidence to back up our campaigns,” he said.

The research has also made its mark on a national level, contributing significantly to investigations into preventing flood fatalities by the Prevention of Flood Related Fatalities Working Group of the Community Engagement Sub-committee of the Australia–New Zealand Emergency Management Committee. It was recognised by the Emergency Media and Public Affairs conference as leading research making a difference in public safety, receiving a highly commended research award in 2018.

"What if" questions drive future policy

"What if" questions drive future policy

What if an earthquake hit central Adelaide? A major flood on the Yarra River through Melbourne? A bushfire on the slopes of Mount Wellington over Hobart?

‘What if?’ scenario modelling by the CRC is helping government, planning authorities and emergency service agencies think through the costs and consequences of various options on preparing for major disasters on their urban infrastructure and natural environments and how these might change into the future.

The CRC research is based on the premise that to reduce both the risk and cost of natural disasters, we need an integrated approach that considers multiple hazards and a range of mitigation options. The Improved decision support for natural hazard risk reduction project, led by Prof Holger Maier and Graeme Riddell at the University of Adelaide, has completed case studies for Adelaide, Melbourne and the whole of Tasmania.  

Based on the success of the research, further work began in Western Australia in 2017, funded through the National Disaster Mitigation Program.  

Taking into account future changes in demographics, land use, economics and climate, the modelling analyses areas of risk both now and into the future, tests risk reduction options, identifies mitigation portfolios that provide the best outcomes for a given budget, and considers single or multiple types of risk reduction options, such as land use planning, structural measures and community education. CRC partners, along with local governments, have been engaged in the entire process, from direction on the hazards to include and feedback on process, to advice on how the modelling will be used when complete and by whom.  

The modelling for Adelaide incorporates flooding, coastal inundation, earthquake and bushfire, as well as land-use allocation. Expected impacts of these hazards have been modelled from 2015 to 2050 with an annual time step under different plausible future scenarios that were developed by end-users, showing the change in risks in different localities.

The integrated nature and comprehensive data available is exciting, says Mike Wouters, Manager Fire Knowledge and Mapping at South Australia’s Department of Environment, Water.

“We have not had access to this type of technology before,” he says.

“We need to be thinking at least a decade ahead, and this research will help us with that.”

The Melbourne and Tasmania case studies incorporate bushfire, flood, coastal inundation and earthquake risk in Melbourne, and bushfire, coastal inundation and earthquake risk for Tasmania.

The powerful nature of the system is its biggest assets, believes Country Fire Authority Deputy Chief Officer Alen Slijepcevic.

“We will need to rely on modelling to help us more and more into the future. We do not have the luxury of waiting 20 or 30 years to assess the impacts of our land management decisions,” Alen says.

Agencies will be able to use the system to help allocate budgets, demonstrating that they are using the best available science to inform decision-making.  

The science is drawing wider acclaim too, with the Investor Group on Climate Change highlighting the software modelling as a key tool to help navigate future climate risk.

This study is the only approach that compares different natural hazards and their mitigation options, while also taking into account long term planning. The ultimate aim is to develop a decision support framework and software system that is sufficiently flexible to be applied to large and small cities around Australia that will help planners from local councils through to state treasury departments answer the vital question on mitigation options that balance cost and impact: ‘what is the best we can be doing?’

This project is an outstanding example of the collaborative process that the CRC is all about, and incorporates findings from other CRC work on recognising non-financial benefits of management and policy for natural hazards, for example, the economic, social and environmental benefits of prescribed burning, the vulnerability of buildings to hazards, such as how they can be made more resilient through cost-effective retrofitting for improved safety, and the benefits and understanding of community resilience efforts like improved warnings, community engagement, education, volunteering and community resilience.

A model for relief and recovery

A model for relief and recovery

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

The CRC research project The Australian Natural Disaster Resilience Index: A system for assessing the resilience of Australian communities to natural hazards, led by Dr Melissa Parsons 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 EMV’s 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,” Holly 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.

In Western Australia, the framework from the Australian Natural Disaster Index has been adopted by the Department of Fire and Emergency Service to frame their monitoring and evaluation framework, assessing their programs to ensure they support specific disaster resilience outcomes.

Carbon abatement through better fire mapping

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 calculate emissions, fires occurring in the latter part of the northern fire season (after 31 July) releasing double the CO2 emissions into the atmosphere than fires occurring early in the dry season. Although this calculation is based on years of data, CDU researchers are developing a new greenhouse gas emissions abatement methodology, using actual fire effect, leading to improved accuracy of the calculations of greenhouse gas emissions. Another important tool, the Savanna Monitoring and Evaluation Reporting Framework provides users with the ability to monitor their fire management and evaluate its effects, providing a single standardised reporting system to assess and compare the outcomes of fire management across 70 per cent of the continent. 

With the emergence of new industries such as carbon farming, which was officially recognised as an industry by the Northern Territory Government in October 2018, and the influence of climate change, bushfire management is rapidly changing in northern Australia, requiring decisions to be prioritised based on risk, and detailed mapping to support these decisions. With such large areas to cover, web-based mapping is fundamental to better improving these land management practices.  

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,” Andrew says.

Currently northern Australia is generating over $30 million annually in this new carbon burning sector, on over 300,000 km2, still only 40 per cent of the potential extent for these savanna burning projects. The fire severity mapping process developed by the research team is an integral part of the process of improving the methodology and has only been possible through the extensive collaboration process undertaken with other researchers from across Australia and around the world.

Complex decision making and teamwork when the heat is on

Complex decision making and teamwork when the heat is on

Effective decision making and teamwork are essential to ensure incident management teams function to the best of their ability in challenging and high stakes environments. To help improve these skills, practical tools have been developed by the CRC project Improving decision-making in complex multi-team environmentsled by Associate Professor Chris Bearman at CQUniversity.

Formally launched in August 2018, a set of teamwork tools (the Team Process Checklist and the Emergency Management Aide Memoire) cover communication, coordination and cooperation and include helpful suggestions on how to identify and resolve teamwork problems during complex situations.

Emergency services have been engaged throughout development, with information sought from 18 separate agencies ranging from state emergency services, urban fire, rural fire and local councils. Agencies allowed the research team to monitor both real and simulated emergency situations from within incident management centres, as well as providing feedback throughout the prototype stage. This has led to tools that are tailored specifically for emergency managers.

The tools are flexible and can be used as a health check to ensure the team is functioning effectively, to identify suspected problems, as a debrief tool and as a way to foster better teamwork. They have been used to better manage teams during incidents, to reflect on teamwork during periods of relative calm, and for assessment or debrief during training. The South Australian Country Fire Service, Tasmania Fire Service and New South Wales State Emergency Service have adopted the tools and the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services sought out the expertise of the team in the aftermath of Severe Tropical Cyclone Debbie in 2017 to inform future preparation, response and recovery.

Those who work in incident management teams, strike teams and at regional and state operations centres can see the most benefit, believes Mark Thomason, Manager Risk and Lessons Management at the South Australia Country Fire Service.

“The tools are straightforward, practical and adaptive to the needs of individual emergency managers to ensure their teams are functioning to the best of their ability,” Mark says.

The Tasmania Fire Service used the tools during the 2015-2016 fire season, which saw TFS responding to many major bushfires over two months. The tools helped to ensure communication between different teams was efficient and timely during a highly stressful time.

Jeremy Smith, the TFS Deputy Chief Officer during the fires, highly recommends the tools to other emergency managers. 

“These tools have been validated and developed through a body of research. The support they provide for incident management is vital,” Jeremy says.

The project has also developed cognitive decision-tools and training materials to aide decision making in complex and high consequence scenarios. Fire and Rescue NSW’s Assistant Commissioner Rob McNeil has worked with the project team to understand his decision making as an incident controller deployed to Japan during the 2011 Fukushima earthquake and tsunami. The process has helped Assistant Commissioner McNeil better understand how he makes decisions, enabling him to teach this process to other incident controllers. 

Findings from this research are also benefiting organisational resilience, with the federal Department of Home Affairs launching a practical guide to decision making based on research carried out in the project. 

Working with AFAC through the Knowledge Innovation and Research Utilisation Network, a research utilisation maturity matrix has been developed to help guide emergency services and land management agencies in assessing how individual agencies implement research findings and where they grow their use. This element of the research has identified that agencies best placed to implement research findings have established governance processes to do so, embed utilisation into job roles, actively test outputs of research and are communities of practice.

Finding fires faster

Finding fires faster

The development of new and innovative algorithms are supporting near-continuous active fire surveillance from space unlike any other satellite hotspot products previously available.  

Using the latest geostationary satellite-based earth observation systems and the Himawari satellite, the Fire surveillance and hazard mapping team from RMIT University, led by Prof Simon Jones and Dr Karin Reinke, will help fire managers with early fire detections to hone in on bushfires.

Most satellite-based fire detection algorithms are susceptible to the effects of clouds, as well as the accuracy of the land surface temperatures observed around a potential fire.  But thanks to the research into an algorithm designed to take advantage of the 10-minute observations available from Himawari-8, and that is specifically tuned to Australian conditions and seasons, a robust and computationally rapid method for early fire detection across Australia has been developed.

Simeon Telfer, a fire manager from South Australia’s Department of Environment and Water, says the research can make a difference to operations.

“Due to the increased availability of the satellite data and faster processing, there is an opportunity for earlier detections, and for ongoing remote observations of fires to be made,” Simeon says.

This means some fires could be detected hours earlier than was previously possible, leading to quicker deployment of firefighters and firefighting aircraft, as well as warnings to the public. 

This is being tested with a trial by the New South Wales Rural Fire Service over summer 2018/2019. Currently, bushfires are primarily detected when a member of the public calls Triple Zero, and occasionally from other satellites that may be passing over the area. Working with the research team, NSW RFS will assess how much faster the new algorithm can detect fires compared to current methods. 

The project is also improving the accuracy of vegetation monitoring for flammability, as well as saving critical personnel hours, through the development of a smartphone application. The Fuels3D app combines off-the-shelf digital cameras and/or smartphones with computer vision and photogrammetric techniques to calculate vegetation structure and fuel hazard metrics.  This reduces individual bias in estimating bushfire risk and ensures more accurate and consistent data is collected, as individual bias is completely removed. Fuels3D allows anyone to take a vegetation fuel sample; it has the potential for pre- and post-burn mapping and can provide inputs into fire behaviour modelling and risk assessment and planning.

Satellites to help show when the bush is ready to burn

Satellites to help show when the bush is ready to burn

Fire and land managers are set to benefit from a new vegetation condition and flammability online mapping tool—the first of its kind to be introduced in Australia.

Effectively providing a clearer picture of immediate fire risks, the Australian Flammability Monitoring System uses satellite data to collect information on live moisture content in trees, shrubs and grass. It then displays this information on an interactive map, which will help fire managers in their prescribed burning efforts and prepositioning of firefighting resources.

Dr Marta Yebra at the Australian National University leads the Mapping bushfire hazards and impacts project, which has developed the web-based system. Different filters and settings on the system give emergency services and land management agencies a new way to help evaluate the risk of a bushfire occurring in certain parts of the country, based on the dryness of soil and fuels and the flammability of vegetation. The prototype system uses satellite data to provide a clear picture of the landscape where there are high levels of vegetation and soil dryness, which are the perfect conditions for a severe bushfire.

The data available through the system is invaluable to fire and land management agencies, explains Dr Adam Leavesley, the Research Utilisation Manager at the ACT Parks and Conservation Service.

“Fire managers across Australia need to understand when our landscape is in a position that is either not going to burn, burn in a way that will allow us to control a fire, or when conditions are so dry that if a fire starts it will be very dangerous and difficult to control,” Dr Leavesley says. 

“The Australian Flammability Monitoring System is going to give us a really good guide across the whole country to how we expect fire to behave on any particular day. This will help agencies position resources during a bushfire, keeping our people safe, and also with prescribed burn planning, particularly in mountainous locations where flammability changes depending on which side of a mountain you are on."

“It has been an amazing partnership with the research team. It is great quality science from a team that is driven by wanting to see their work make an impact – that has been the key to getting us to this stage.”

Access the Australian Flammability Monitoring System at

A new model for helping

A new model for helping

How people volunteer to keep their community safe from natural hazards is changing. As our work and life commitments change, many people do not have the time to dedicate to traditional ways of volunteering with an emergency service, undergo the required training and develop the ability to respond to potentially dangerous situations. But they still want to help, and they still want to volunteer.

With research showing that the nature of volunteering and citizen involvement in disaster management is fundamentally changing, advice from the RMIT University team led by Prof John Handmer and Dr Blythe McLennan is regularly sought by individual agencies and organisations in the development of guides and policies around volunteering and spontaneous volunteering.

Research from the CRC project Out of uniform: building community resilience through non-traditional emergency volunteering has influenced key national initiatives, with findings from the study used extensively for the development of the National Spontaneous Volunteer Strategy by the Australia–New Zealand Emergency Management Committee.

The strategy provides advice to emergency service agencies on what they need to be aware of, and what they need to consider and plan for when working with spontaneous volunteers. Important issues such as legal obligations and social media are also covered, with the work of the project team integral to the Strategy’s completion.

Building on this, the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience has drawn directly on the research to develop a new handbook on spontaneous volunteer management. The handbook provides important guidance for organisations on how to incorporate the principles of the National Spontaneous Volunteer Strategy, and the most recent research on spontaneous volunteering, into their own plans and procedures.

Emergency services are also using the research, with the New South Wales State Emergency Service using the findings to shape how the organisation will recruit volunteers. 

“Findings from the research really helped to shape our Volunteering Reimagined strategy, launched in 2017,” says Andrew McCullough, Volunteering Strategist at the New South Wales State Emergency Service.

“The NSW SES is planning to lead in this space, and it is only with the help and the research of the CRC that this is possible,” he says.

In Western Australia, the Department of Fire and Emergency Services has used the research to develop new directions in volunteering, while South Australia’s Department of Communities and Social Inclusion, Volunteering ACT and Volunteering Victoria have also been influenced by the work in developing policies and guides to volunteer management, both during emergencies and in recovery. Be Ready Warrandyte, a community group in one of Melbourne’s high bushfire risk suburbs, has drawn extensively on the research to help educate and support their local community.

“What is now crystal clear is that the old volunteering model is not sustainable,” says John Schauble, Emergency Management Victoria’s Director of Emergency Management Resilience.

Findings from this research are now informing a new CRC project on sustainable volunteering, focusing on how to best adapt emergency management agencies to these new ways of volunteering. This new research will centre around exploring the developments that are likely to occur over the next decade that will require adaption, as well as barriers to organisational change. The expectations and stereotypes about volunteering held by prospective volunteers will also be explored, investigating the effectiveness of recruitment materials and strategies, including for the attraction of more diversity amongst volunteers. What motivates people to volunteer will also be explored.