In our technologically driven world, data is everywhere. And smart use of data will help emergency services understand complexities and make informed decisions.
By Gabriel Zito. This article was orginally published in Issue Three 2019 of Fire Australia.
In the world of emergency services, data can be overwhelming, and understanding the usage – or lack thereof – of a fire truck, a brigade or station is an essential part of providing support and services to the public when needed. How can our emergency services make the best sense of the general capability of their units? More importantly, what does this data mean as our demographics change, our population grows and risks evolve – and create new vulnerabilities?
The South Australian Fire and Emergency Services Commission (SAFECOM) is well aware of the power of the data at its disposal, and thanks to research by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, now has the ability to consider how the future will impact on their fleet and the services that the Metropolitan Fire Service (MFS), Country Fire Service (CFS) and State Emergency Service (SES) provide to the community.
Headed by researcher Dr Andre Costa (University of Adelaide) and undertaken specifically for SAFECOM, the project has resulted in a data analysis tool used to visually assess the resource use of the South Australian emergency services.
The tool was born out of a discussion that former SAFECOM CEO Malcolm Jackman had with Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC CEO Dr Richard Thornton around the principle that better understanding data supports better decision making about capability.
“We had this conversation about, can you take all the data, pull it together, analyse it and can you tell us what it’s saying in terms of response times, in terms of call-outs utilisation?” Mr Jackman said. “We are continually looking at what our footprint looks like. Changing demographics and risk profiles mean that our existing footprint may not be the contemporary footprint of the future.”
Now in use across South Australia's emergency services, the tool’s primary aim is utilisation. It uses the historical information of the past seven years from the South Australian emergency services to measure response times, allocation of resources and dispatch systems of the network of fire emergency appliances and personnel.
At the core of the tool is data – lots of it.
“We take about 45,000 calls a year responding to any emergency,” explained Mr Jackman. “We looked at the data from around 300,000 individual incidents.”
It was the power of this real world data that most excited Dr Costa. “People are becoming a lot more open to the idea that there is some value to be extracted from the data they already have,” Dr Costa explained. “The great thing about data analytics is that people give you their real world data sets, actual things they care about, and they want to extract information from it. “We spent a bit of time with the chief people responsible for data in the MFS, CFS and the SES and asked them to check if we were interpreting the data correctly.”
All up, the software tool encompasses the statistics and visualisation of events and utilisation of appliances and stations spanning from 2012 to 2018 across South Australia’s three emergency services – the MFS, CFS and SES. “What the software tells us is what would happen if we pulled this asset (out of service) or if we pulled this location (out of service), what would the response look like then?” Mr Jackman explained.
The functionality gives senior management at the MFS, CFS and SES the ability to visualise years of data more simply, and to highlight the areas where capability and capacity gaps have occurred or are likely to occur. This can then help make decisions easier and provide an insight into how to better plan and prepare for the future.
The software provides the keys to access this window into the future, explained Dr Costa. “So once [SA’s emergency services] make the decision and change how they do things, they are going to be able to see those changes and track that within the tool.”
This planning is at the core of ensuring South Australia’s emergency services are ready for the coming decades.
“What we’ve been able to do with this tool is not just look at individual units but look at groups of units,” Mr Jackman said. “We’ve been able to look at the three services combined or an individual service by itself. We can slice and dice it in many ways. In places where we know population growth is going to happen, we can say ‘well look, the usage [of an individual truck, brigade or unit] five years ago was this, it now looks like this – if you run it out another five years, what’s that going to tell you?’ The next step is, if you see an increase in usage, is it because of increasing population or industry? What’s driving that? Is it a sustained trend? And if it is a sustained trend, what do we think it’s going to look like in the future?” Mr Jackman said.
Time series of activity levels and rolling response time statistics, a calendar activity view that drills down to show detailed event timelines and appliances/units’ history, heatmaps and distribution charts of station/unit/appliance utilisation are all part of the tool’s interactivity and way of displaying data in a much more user-friendly format.
The tool is set to provide a better understanding of how the resources that make up South Australia’s emergency services are used at various times, for various events. In doing so, cost management, resource allocation and future emergencies will be managed far more efficiently and directly.
The scope of the data analysis, and its potential to be applied to a wide variety of other organisations within the emergency sector, are essential elements for the management of natural hazards, both now and in the future.
“There are a number of avenues that applied research could go down,” explained Dr Costa. “We actually want to try and predict what might happen or do ‘what if’ experimentation, and the next step is to try and build a model of the system to forecast what would happen if we added resources here, how would that affect response times?”
And now the agencies are armed with the tool to best make sense of the data at their disposal, South Australia’s emergency services will be able to tackle the future head-on. In a time where technology rules and budgets are struggling to keep up with the costs of delivering services, working out how to optimise assets is essential.
“At the end of the day, there’s only a finite amount of money left to spend,” said Mr Jackman. “Where do we spend it? Why do we spend it, and what are the consequences of this expenditure? This is what the tool allows us to achieve.
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