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Aircraft are called to survey and fight firefronts too dangerous for ground crews.

Collaboratively managing our aerial firefighting resources

The reality of firefighting is that it is a complex science. Now more than ever aerial operations are needed to assist resources on the ground. The National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) supports aerial firefighting capabilities through its collaborative approach to resource management.

Since its formation in 2003, NAFC has facilitated the sharing of crucial aerial firefighting resources between Australian states and territories. Its core role involves coordinating lease agreements and contracting a national fleet of highly specialised aircraft that emergency services and land management agencies across Australia rely upon during the fire season. While aerial firefighting on its own is not normally effective in extinguishing fires, when deployed in cooperation with on-the-ground firefighters it can prove vital.

As well as providing important aerial support during fires, the fleet of aircraft is able to offer operational support for a range of other natural hazards, such as flood and storm mitigation and recovery activities.

The fleet of specialised firefighting aircraft are sourced by NAFC on a lease basis from high quality operators around the world and a public tender process is used to manage aircraft procurement. State and territory experts conduct extensive risk assessments prior to and during the fire season to determine how aircraft are best positioned across the country. The growing trend towards longer fire seasons has at times posed a challenge for NAFC in managing resources, with many of the larger aircraft coming from overseas for the fire season.

Due to the cost of these highly specialised aircraft it is not economically feasible for every state and territory to host the full range of aerial capabilities during the fire season. Instead NAFC fosters a national arrangement between all jurisdictions which allows aircraft to be readily shifted across the country as high risk fire conditions develop. By facilitating the sharing of these aerial resources agencies are provided with increased capacity to respond to fires and valuable access to aerial support that would otherwise be unavailable.

General Manager of NAFC, Richard Alder says the organisation works closely with its members, made up of Australia’s firefighting agencies from all states and territories, to best meet everyone’s needs.

“It is a complex map of stakeholders and I am proud of the work the NAFC team does to deliver better support to our Members.”

The current fleet of more than 120 aircraft includes large helicopters (such as the well-known Aircrane), fixed-wing firebombers and water scoopers, among other specialised aircraft – the 2015/2016 fleet also included four large fixed-wing airtankers. It is early days for large airtankers in Australia but they could prove to be a game-changer in aerial firefighting. The sophisticated large airtankers offer speed and flexibility that allows them to deploy quickly across the country and operate within several jurisdictions during the one day. Not all aircraft are effective in every situation, and for this reason NAFC procures and maintains a mix of specialised aircraft to provide the flexibility agencies need to respond to a wide range of events.

NAFC’s highly cooperative model has seen contracting of aircraft transition from a state-based responsibility to a centralised system, made possible with the support of the Australian Government. In 2015-2016 the Australian Government provided $15.38m in essential funding towards the standing costs of the fleet, with state and territory governments meeting operating costs and the remaining fixed costs.

“Without the support of all levels of government, both tangible and intangible, NAFC could not operate,” says Mr Alder.

Mr Alder says the successful model has been instrumental in supporting fire, emergency services and land management agencies and, most importantly, in saving lives and property throughout many bushfire seasons and emergency situations.

“The sophisticated way in which the fleet is moved around the country is a reflection of the collaborative approach and the goodwill shown by all. We have come a long way in a short time.”

Enter ‘ARENA’: A comprehensive support system for aerial resources

A major milestone for NAFC has been the creation and implementation of ARENA; a collaborative national information system to support the management of fire and emergency aviation. The first stage of ARENA was rolled out during 2015 and provides users with a national registry of aircraft, operators and people.

The ground-breaking and innovative system was developed in conjunction with NAFC’s members and delivers convenient access to a single source of consistent, quality-managed information. ARENA engages cloud-based architecture which provides users access to information from a range of devices and locations.

Mr Alder says the system offers a unique opportunity for the industry.

“In practice, the collaborative approach to ARENA will deliver a cohesive, integrated national information system that all our stakeholders can use to help with effective and efficient application of aviation resources across the country”

Since its release ARENA has clocked up over 1,100 registered users and now records the details of more than 550 aircraft, 950 pilots and 180 aircraft operators.

ARENA reduces administrative business processes and streamlines communication between all stakeholders. Providing one tool for all jurisdictions the system maintains high quality data on the movement of the fleet and the operators and pilots.

Perhaps one of the most important features of ARENA is its ability to integrate data from a range of other systems including existing agency information management systems. Many additional functions for the system are currently being developed, such as daily service readiness, resource availability and fleet preparedness.

NAFC is committed to the ongoing development of ARENA – as its functionality and user numbers grow its value to the sector will continue to drive efficiencies, collaboration and positive outcomes for Australian communities.

For more information, go to www.nafc.org.auarena.nafc.org.au

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Freya Jones is Communications Assistant for AFAC.