“The perception of elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future.” So runs an academic definition on Situation Awareness (SA). For time poor incident management teams another definition is knowing what the hell is going on, anticipating what’s going to happen next and so enabling, at the next moment, a commander to make correct decisions– no pressure!
In the context of planning, preparation and suppression of wildfires, SA is the cornerstone of good command – as it is in any uniformed government agency. This is crucial at the strategic level: the incident controller despatching units right up to state level controller, who has responsibility for multiple fires and guiding other agencies in achieving critical obligations. APF magazine readers are aware of this; and in high fire season, probably lose sleep over it.
The most junior in the chain of command, who actually sees the incident developing, probably feels the best informed. After all, he / she can see the fire, is aware of the current situation, and knows from good training and experience what to do. What about decision making at the strategic level? Here commanders labour in a far more complex environment with a cascading, and ever changing, list of priorities –and stands in isolation, that is not actually viewing the incident(s).
Visual perception is our dominant sense; it leads to better cognitive understanding and SA. But commanders and incident management teams make decisions without viewing the incident(s). Of course maps, site descriptions, satellite imagery and even memory and experience help fill the picture. But overall humans rely on their sight to understand a complex situation.
New technologies are being quickly introduced. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones are being added to the range of technologies available to commanders. They provide a method of capturing imagery. With miniaturization this option is becoming more attractive. But Is this enough? And is it the right solution in known wildfire prone rural areas?
Matt Timson has never fought a bush fire in his life. But he knows how to create compelling images. Matt worked in the broadcast television and advertising industries for years, and in the course of looking for a solution to a problem, developed a remote 360 degree camera system that I believe will offer an eyes-on-the-ground solution for fire fighters.
“The idea for the first camera system was a solution to a problem.” Matt explains “I was looking for a robust remote camera system that could deliver time-lapse weather clips for broadcast news each night. But I wanted the freedom to move the camera while shooting in time-lapse.” This would normally require expensive motion-controlled cameras that calls for the camera movement to be pre-programmed. “I wanted to show the audience an approaching storm front and follow it as it sweeps over the city. But you can’t pre-program the weather, and moving parts means high maintenance.”
After an exhaustive search turned up nothing suitable, Matt went to work on creating his own solution. He realised that by shooting everything he could choose what to show the audience and when. The genesis of the 360 deg ODIS system first went to air in Sydney without a hitch and was a hit with news chiefs. After further improvements two more cameras were installed in Brisbane and Melbourne and the system has been in continuous operation for over 5 years.
I spoke to Matt about the inspiration for the EYE360, a tough new breed of camera the team have developed. ”My parents live in central Victoria, so every fire season I’m on high alert. I thought if we had access to a network of these cameras around the state, they could assist in early detection and may even help save lives.”
This new breed technology has special appeal to Fire-Fighters. The EYE360 camera units don’t require mains power or wired communications so can be installed almost anywhere. The compact IP67 units are totally solid-state and virtually maintenance free, capturing ultra-high resolution 360° x 120° images at regular pre-set intervals. The images are acquired instantly, seamlessly and at high frequency, allowing headquarters staff to accurately review the entire remote location in very high quality 360° time-lapse. The data is transmitted to the Cloud as well as stored locally as a back-up. The system can also integrate an array of local and third-part data directly into the vision to provide enhanced environmental intelligence.
The ability to see all of the elements in a remote situation, and how they got there is at the heart of SA. Matt described how Fire headquarters could use the technology. “Our research told us that gathering data is only half the task. Providing it in a form that’s useable and minimises data overload while maximising decision-making potential is also essential. High quality 360 degree time-lapse provides that perfectly. The data can be delivered as open standard API for easy integration into command’s ICT system and disseminated with other information coming in from the field.” I agree, and in fact see a military application as well.
Matt explained that a network of cameras would allow incident controllers to view a single fire from multiple angles, and at the same time the state-level controller could see everything including multiple incidents from just one camera. Matt expanded this point, “This offers the ability to remotely triangulate and locate fires, as well as rewind the entire 360 degree scene to the point of ignition and very quickly and concisely review the situation right up to the present time.” I can see this as a useful briefing tool and at shift changes. This can also prove useful in post-event performance and forensic analysis as well as dispute resolution in costly legal proceedings and inquiries.
Matt has a public information function in mind. “Public access to the same vision during high fire periods has the potential to further increase early warnings. Over 90% of all fires reported to agencies are by the public so empowering communities to self-monitor would put more eyes on the ground at critical times”. Matt referred to the Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission, “one of the conclusions in the Royal Commission Report was that the public needs an alternative source of information. The “OOO” help line was overwhelmed by non-critical calls, while more urgent calls couldn’t get through. The 360 degree ODIS images and data could be supplied to the public via emergency services websites, broadcast TV and network applications to provide an easily understood alternative source of information.”
As the peak fire season is only 3 or 4 months of the year, I’m interested to know the costs for a network of high-end cameras. “We see a number of options including a flexible online service model as an effective way to provide cost sharing and seasonal offsets with complimentary industry partners.”
I reflect back on my own experience within a military headquarters. Knowing how and why incidents arise is not just important but crucial. And I know how thirsty commanders are for information. I do know, in an historic context, the victorious general often placed a headquarters on a ridgeline, or in a bell tower: all the better to see.
Squadron Leader Hugh Dolan Ret’d was a military intelligence operator for 17 years, serving in various headquarters roles in Australia and overseas. He has written two books on decision superiority, especially the role of aerial intelligence in ANZAC Headquarters during the Gallipoli campaign.
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