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The VFFA is sharing this ABC News article because we support the comments made by Dr. Simon Heemstra including:

  • Mapping by hand most reliable
  • There is no technology that can replace frontline experience

It would be great to see a relocation of these resources to a locality west of the “sandstone curtain”.

Lets not forget all of the volunteers across the state with a wealth of local knowledge to offer.

By Luke Wong and Amanda Hoh – 2 Nov 2017

PHOTO: Simon Heemstra has been with the Rural Fire Service for 24 years. (ABC Radio Sydney: Luke Wong)

PHOTO: Simon Heemstra has been with the Rural Fire Service for 24 years. (ABC Radio Sydney: Luke Wong)

Simon Heemstra has always had a fascination with fire.

But that interest turned into a career when he first witnessed a rural community in New South Wales being devastated by a bushfire in 1994.

“We had quite a lot of homes and properties that were lost in the Jannali and Como area, and I realised what a fantastic service the Rural Fire Service provides,” Dr Heemstra said.

At the time he was studying a science honours degree in vegetation mapping, and a whole area he had been monitoring was burnt.

The event motivated him to join his local volunteer brigade and pursue a doctorate in fire mapping.

“I decided fire was a pretty interesting thing, in particular fire ecology,” Dr Heemstra said.

“Since then it’s always been a passion of mine to better understand fire, to better understand the impacts and how we can better manage that and reduce the impacts on communities”

After 10 years as volunteer, Dr Heemstra moved behind the scenes and is currently the manager for community planning at the state headquarters of the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS), based in Lidcombe.

When bushlands flare up across the state, his job as a fire behaviour analyst is to predict how far the fire might spread or where embers might land, using mathematical modelling.

He collaborates with a large team — 10 on-site personnel and a further 80 statewide — as well as the multiple emergency agencies and representatives who work out of the RFS control centre.

Working together in a high-stress environment

The RFS state operations centre is a collaborative hub where fire and emergency agencies join together to look after all corners of NSW during bushfire and other disaster events.

PHOTO: The RFS control room often monitors up to 100 fires at a time across NSW. (Supplied: Rural Fire Service)

PHOTO: The RFS control room often monitors up to 100 fires at a time across NSW. (Supplied: Rural Fire Service)

During peak bushfire season there are hundreds of people packed into the circular room, their eyes continuously flicking between computer screens and the massive digital display board that looms above.

The display, made up of 100 screens, shows everything from maps, social media feeds, fire updates and weather charts, to live footage from crews battling fires across the state.

Key decisions about crew deployment, warning alerts and updates are made by the people in the room.

PHOTO: Analysts need to understand how certain fire types, such as grass or forest fires, behave. (AAP: Paul Miller)

PHOTO: Analysts need to understand how certain fire types, such as grass or forest fires, behave. (AAP: Paul Miller)

These include logistical teams that coordinate aviation units, the Bureau of Meteorology, ambulance, National Parks and Wildlife, the NSW Police Force and other emergency response experts.

“It’s extremely stressful. It’s fair to say there’s a very, very high tempo of focus, of stress and anxiety,” RFS commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.

“The collective focus is one about professionalism and simply wanting to do our very best to make a difference, and ensure as many people are saved and protected as we possibly can.”

Mapping by hand most reliable

Despite the high-tech environment at the control centre, Dr Heemstra said his job still relied on old-fashioned, hand-drawn mapping techniques.

While computer software can predict the path and speed of a bushfire within minutes, Dr Heemstra said calculations performed by humans were still more accurate and reliable.

PHOTO: Digital modelling tools to predict fire spreads were only developed two years ago. (ABC Radio Sydney: Luke Wong)

PHOTO: Digital modelling tools to predict fire spreads were only developed two years ago. (ABC Radio Sydney: Luke Wong)

And there is also no technology that can replace frontline experience.

“We’re finding still that the manual analysts out-predict the computers at least nine times out of 10,” Dr Heemstra said.

“By actually having been on the fire grounds, seeing how the models are working, to understand their limitations, I suppose that’s largely why our manual predictions are still beating the computers, because we have that experience or knowledge of fires.

“You really develop an appreciation and respect for a fire.”

 

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