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STANDING COMMITTEE ON INDUSTRY, SCIENCE AND INNOVATION
30/06/2009
Long-term meteorological forecasting

CHAIR —I now call the representative of Firewatch Australia Pty Ltd to give evidence. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that these hearings are formal proceedings of the parliament, consequently they warrant the same respect as proceedings of the House itself. It is customary to remind witnesses that giving false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. We thank you for your submission and welcome you to make a brief opening statement before we proceed to questions.

Mr Goodrich —Thank you for the opportunity to present to the standing committee. I represent a company that owns some technology that can detect bushfires before the human eye can see them. This technology is terrestrial, that is, land based; it is not satellite based. It provides the ability to monitor broadacre landscapes 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which a satellite system does not. Obviously a satellite goes over once every four to eight hours, so there is a fair amount of time that lapses between each pass, and a fire, should it so desire, can get away in that time. Our technology is interesting in that it was developed by the German aerospace institute for the NASA Mars Pathfinder mission. Our technology is not a camera, per se; it is more of a scanning technology because the German aerospace institute’s technology was required to scan the surface of Mars in order to determine where the Pathfinder vehicle should be put down. One of the spin-offs, as NASA has done in the US, is that it tries to use the technology and these huge technological endeavours for the benefit of mankind more generally, and a German technology company acquired the exclusive patented rights to the scanning technology to monitor bushfires.

Why is this important to your committee? I would be very happy to answer any questions. However, as an introductory point of view our system is not a stand-alone system; it is not the only answer to bushfire detection or bushfire fighting. Our technology is an input into a 21st century way of thinking about detecting and managing bushfires in our ever-drying climate with less rainfall every year. Australians love to live in and around the Australian bush; it is part of our psyche, really. If we are going to make that a safe and acceptable thing for us to continue doing, I think we need to think a bit more comprehensively than we have in the past in respect of the way in which bushfires are monitored.

Our technology is made up of two main components. The first one is what looks like a camera that sits up on top of a tall mast, on top of a fire tower or a telecommunications tower, which rotates by itself automatically every six minutes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It has night vision so it can see at night when the human eye cannot see, and it can detect the difference between 16,384 shades of the colour grey. I did not know, prior to owning this technology licence, that there are even 16,384 shades of the colour grey, but there apparently are.

CHAIR —That is a very specific number; 16,384.

Mr Goodrich —Yes, this is a computer based technology, so everything with computers is about specific things. That is a very good point, Madam Chair. However this enables the technology to detect the difference between bushfire smoke and cloud, or mist, or fog or a backyard barbecue, because the grey shade of backyard barbecue smoke is different to that of a eucalyptus tree burning or the Australian bush burning. It is a very high technology system that can deliver real-time information into the hands of the people who we entrust in our community to keep us safe, which are the emergency services authorities.

The technology—and this is where it may link into the standing committee—takes inputs from all kinds of meteorological resources, being wind speed, wind direction, humidity levels and, if there is such information available, soil moisture levels. As a result of taking in those feeds, Firewatch can alert the firefighting authorities to what direction the fire is going in, what size the fire is and exactly where it is, down to the nearest one metre, so the right resources can be sent to the right location in the shortest possible time, ensuring the utmost safety of those volunteers, primarily, who serve our community so faithfully, to the maximum possible capacity, instead of sending them out on an investigatory mission not knowing what exactly they will find when they get there and not being sure that they have the equipment that they need when they get there to fight that fire.

Whilst this technology is absolutely state of the art, I am sorry to say it is not new. It has been around for the last eight or nine years. There are 156 cameras in Germany. Installations are either underway or in testing mode in the United States, Portugal, Spain, Estonia, the Czech Republic, France and Greece, to name a few. So it really is tried and tested. The results from the German firefighting authorities are plain: the area of forest fire burnt since Firewatch was installed there eight or nine years ago has reduced by 92 per cent.

CHAIR —Yes, I saw that figure. It is quite staggering.

Mr Goodrich —It is not an evolution in bushfire detection but really is a revolution. From our point of view, we are really interested in sharing knowledge of this technology with everyone who is interested. I know that Fran Bailey is visiting Germany as we speak to get a firsthand understanding of this technology. She obviously was and is significantly impacted by the devastating effects of Black Saturday and she is interested in trying to make a difference, which is a fantastic thing for all of us. In summary, this technology is available, it is cost effective in terms of its implementation, it is reliable and, from the perspective of saving lives and property, it has the potential to have a massive impact.

Importantly—and I do not know whether this is an area that this committee looks into—from a greenhouse gas perspective, Firewatch has the ability to minimise the amount of greenhouse gases emitted as a result of bushfires. I do not know whether the standing committee is aware of the reports from the CSIRO which stated that the Black Saturday fires emitted the equivalent of one full year of industrial greenhouse gas emissions in one fire event. Currently, under the Kyoto protocols, as I am sure you are all aware, bushfire emissions are not counted. There is every indication, however, that in future versions of Kyoto, whatever they look like and end up being like, bushfire emissions will be counted; hence they will have a real cost to our economy and not just to our planet. The ability to detect and extinguish bushfires from an environmental and a cost perspective for future generations of Australians is massive using the Firewatch technology. I thank the committee for allowing me to present this morning.

CHAIR —Thank you very much. Our deputy chair is on her way to Europe, and Germany in particular. I assume Firewatch is not being used anywhere in Australia at the moment.

Mr Goodrich —We have found the implementation of this new technology a rather frustrating process. Our initial approach was to speak with the people who were on the front line of fighting bushfires to discuss with them and share with them the potential positive impacts that this technology could have upon their operations and their performance. It is unfortunate that we have been unsuccessful in convincing the emergency services authorities to embrace this technology. We do not blame them. They have constrained budgets. I think the question is why.

CHAIR —I was going to ask you why.

Mr Goodrich —There are two reasons. One is constrained budgets. They operate under the same conditions that we all do particularly in this economic climate. But the second one, and it is a little bit more concerning, is the operational methodologies and thinking applied in these organisations. I am generalising and I do not wish to paint everyone with the same brush, but generally speaking, as has been indicated by some of the testimony in the royal commission into the Victorian bushfire tragedy, there are some operational issues which exist in most emergency services organisations, which tend to constrain the embrace of new technology. There is a desire for more trucks and more helicopters and water bombers—the big toys of course. I am not saying that they are not necessary. However, once you need those toys, it is too late.

CHAIR —So the emphasis would be on acquiring the equipment necessary to fight the fire rather than acquiring the equipment necessary to detect and potentially prevent the fire.

Mr Goodrich —Quite so.

CHAIR —Is it a massive cost to install a system like this? Do you have any idea of how much it would cost?

Mr Goodrich —The costs depend upon the extent of the network so it is very difficult for me to say precisely. I would not want to mislead the committee in terms of cost, but I can assure you that the cost of installing a comprehensive network of firewatch cameras in and around the urban fringe, as a starting point, of our capital cities would be infinitesimal compared to the cost in terms of loss of life, loss of property, loss of natural environment—and flora and fauna—and, in the future, the potential costs associated with greenhouse gas emissions, which would absolutely dwarf the cost of installing a comprehensive network of detection technology.

CHAIR —So there is no figure. I appreciate what you are saying though in terms of costs.

Mr Goodrich —In terms of a figure—

CHAIR —Computer specific.

Mr Goodrich —To install a single camera is a very expensive way to approach this and it is not our proposal. Our proposal is that we actually install a network of cameras across this vast land of ours. We propose that we do not charge the government anything in terms of capital costs but that we provide an information service that various government agencies across state, federal and local levels contribute to, hence sharing the cost. However, our organisation would be responsible for the financing, installation, upkeep and ongoing maintenance of this network and, provided we have a long enough lease term, we could amortise those costs over the life of the technology. The technology is constantly being updated from a software perspective and so it would make much more sense that the owners of the technology and the developers of the technology retain the obligation to keep the technology current. So from a capital perspective the cost would be nothing. There would be some small costs associated with towers in things, which are not in our ownership, but really the bigger picture issue here is to provide real-time information to enable detection to happen at the earliest possible time and the extinguishment of fires before they become fire fronts and get out of control and become major life and property threatening issues.

CHAIR —This system is obviously a detection device and it is programmed in that way. Is it also reliant in any way on broader weather forecasting and seasonal forecasting? There are lots of issues we are looking at in terms of getting accurate forecasts that can pre-empt perhaps a fire hazard. Is this system at all reliant on any of that information being fed into it, or is it a stand-alone detection process?

Mr Goodrich —The system is stand-alone, but it is able to take and receive it inputs from a variety of meteorological resources and sources. The more of those resources and sources and the higher quality of those resources and sources, the better information that can be delivered from Firewatch itself. The system is automatic. I can provide the committee with some pictorial evidence, if that would be useful.

CHAIR —Yes, that would be useful.

Mr Goodrich —I am happy to table it. This one shows our recent trial in the San Bernardino Valley in California in the United States. Unfortunately, these photos are in black and white; I did not have the colour printer running this morning.

Mr RAMSEY —Shades of grey.

CHAIR —Very true.

Mr Goodrich —If you flick through it that stack of photographs, you can actually see what the screen in the control room looks like. It is real-time and you will see there is a camera. When the system automatically scans and detects a bushfire, it puts a box around it and gives exact coordinates. Then the operator can disconnect the automatic rotation and ask the camera to go back to the exact location of that alarm and focus on it, and stay on it and watch it, and monitor whether it is someone burning off a car in the middle of a bush track or a real fire, or some registered back-burning operations that they know about, and they can release the alarm signal. The automatic nature of it takes away the human error that can come from the current 19th century systems and technologies that are employed by the good Samaritans phoning in a bushfire or phoning in saying, ‘I think I see some smoke over the back of yonder and I think it is a bushfire.’ The consequential costs associated with sending out resources to check out those things or putting a plane or a helicopter in the air are enormous.

Mr SYMON —You mentioned there are 156 stations in Germany, which, according to my very rough maths, covers about 100,000 square kilometres. Obviously, it would be a much larger venture to undertake in Australia.

Mr Goodrich —Yes.

Mr SYMON —How do these monitoring stations communicate (a) with each other and (b) with a central reference point?

Mr Goodrich —That is an excellent question. Your calculations are roughly correct. However, the amount of area monitored by each camera station or each installation obviously depends upon the topography of the area that it is installed in.

Mr SYMON —I take it there would have to be an overlap for your triangulation purposes as well?

Mr Goodrich —Exactly; a small overlap. I can actually show you in this document a pictorial representation of what that overlap looks like. However, no camera, no technology, can see through a mountain. If there is a mountain in the way, it might not be 700 square kilometres of coverage because of the topography. The system itself is a self-powered, so the remoteness of the locations does not impact the operational capability. It is a combination of solar power with battery packs and hydrogen fuel cells, depending upon the weather and how much sunlight. In Australia we are blessed with abundant sunshine, so we would probably not need the hydrogen fuel cell technology except for in the most southern parts of the country. In terms of the way they communicate, obviously if you are close to a network point then that is better. However, if you are absolutely remote then we use satellite technology to beam the signal up to a satellite and then take it down to a terrestrial land point again and feed it into the broadband system or the telephone system. That then connects to the control point. The control points can be anywhere—any state or any country, or you could be sitting at home set with a laptop computer—it is that flexible.

Mr SYMON —I suppose that was my point: the communications side of things. Going back to the Victorian bushfires and Black Saturday, one of the first things to get knocked out was the mobile phone network. A lot of people found they could not get onto it because it was that busy. If you had a monitoring service that could not actually log onto a signal, maybe in an area like Victoria satellite might be the way to overcome that.

Mr Goodrich —I think most of the emergency services networks are very secure and very robust networks compared to the mobile phone networks—they have to be. Police, ambulance and fire brigade operate off their own networks in every state and territory. I believe there is currently a tender out at the moment for private organisations to deliver those services. We would think it would be appropriate to utilise those emergency services networks as opposed to the standard mobile phone network for exactly the reason you mentioned. This information is so critical at critical times that you do not want to depend upon mobile phone towers and mobile phone networks that do get congested at peak times.

Mr SYMON —Just onto another technical issue you have there. The scan time takes seven minutes to complete its 360 degree.

Mr Goodrich —Actually it is six minutes now; it has just been fixed.

Mr SYMON —All right, six minutes. Is there a reason it takes that long? Are there advantages to it being a shorter duration?

Mr Goodrich —The technology that really delivers the genius of this system are the operating system and the central control station. That central control station is where the analysis happens, where the data gets collected and where people get to make decisions on what to do. The camera itself is just a data collector. We are trying to scan a very, very large area—a 10 degree slice of a 360 degree revolution—and it takes a certain amount of time for each slice to be fully analysed and for all the data, which is quite a rich data stream, to be fed into the system. With a 10 degree slice happening 36 times it takes six minutes in order to do that. Six minutes is not a very long time, I think you will appreciate, when you compare it to six or eight hours with a satellite going over.

Mr SYMON —I suppose I am just running that further. In your submission, in relation to the German ones, in some cases the cameras detected the fires even earlier than human observers.

Mr Goodrich —Every time. At night-time definitely the human eye cannot see anything. In the daytime—and what we are talking about is the comparison with manned fire towers—it is very, very difficult for a manned fire tower to maintain concentration at a peak level for a sustained period of time, so the amount of human error that is possible and happens in manned fire towers is significant. Whereas from a technological perspective it is irrelevant. In terms of Firewatch delivering its product compared to a manned fire tower, there is no comparison really with the 19th century, ‘Let’s put a person up there with some binoculars and hope that the fire is in front of them rather than out the back at the time they are looking at it.’ By the time the human eye sees it, Firewatch—and I think it is in that submission that I passed across the table—sees it significantly earlier than the human eye can see it.

Mr SYMON —Thank you.

Mr RAMSEY —I am from South Australia, David, and I do not think we have any manned fire towers in South Australia any more. Do we in the rest of Australia?

Mr Goodrich —They are manned during peak fire season times. But there are not that many. That is a fair comment.

Mr RAMSEY —So there is not a significant saving to be made there?

Mr Goodrich —Not from a human perspective. In Germany the type of forests they have tend to mean that they have a lot more fire towers. The level of population they have in Germany is significantly greater than we have, from a density perspective, in Australia. So they had a more significant manned fire tower system in place than we do. We have a couple but not significant numbers, according to my knowledge anyway.

Mr RAMSEY —In that light, given that you found it difficult selling it to emergency services, what about the forestry industry, has there been interest there?

Mr Goodrich —We believe there would be interest across a range of stakeholders once the network was in place. But it takes a lead agency or a lead political initiative to get it in place or to be the almost the head contract with us, if you will. Then the expenses, I am absolutely certain, could be defrayed by selling the information to forestry companies, to local councils and to state government agencies like Forests New South Wales, who are themselves forestry businesses. Environmental agencies like National Parks and Wildlife for instance and other government agencies I think would also share it. We have had meetings with pretty much all of those agencies particularly in New South Wales. When you try to say, ‘Hey, who is going to be the lead agency?’ it is universally true that the fingers go pointing in opposite directions because nobody is able to take that lead, and hence we have gone nowhere over the last two or three years.

Our proposal is to ask the federal government to take the leadership on this issue and make this investment as a nation-building project. It would dovetail beautifully in with the National Broadband Network because we could tap into that from an information dissemination perspective. But it would provide future generations with the sense of safety that we all want if we live in the bush. I do not know whether any of the members live near the bush, but I do and I love it. To say that you cannot do that I think would be something that most Australians would find unacceptable.

Mr RAMSEY —This is once again on a localised issue but it is my thought that the South Australian emergency services are better funded than perhaps some of their interstate counterparts because we have—with great political pain—an emergency services levy there. We have a full government dedicated radio channel now that has been laid out and better funding. Particularly in the Adelaide Hills, I would have thought that this would be excellent technology. Have you tried to sell your wares there?

Mr Goodrich —We have not. We have been focusing on the New South Wales and the ACT market. It was unfortunate that we received our first inquiry from the Victorian CFA six weeks before the tragedy earlier this year and it has gone no further. That is due to the same reason I mentioned with respect to separate government agencies not wanting to be the first cab off the rank, so to speak. State government would like the federal government be the first cab off the rank. It is our great desire that Mr Rudd see the benefit of at least trialling this technology in Australia. I cannot believe that there is not an initiative to at least try it. I do not know why it is but every country that we sell this technology into seems to want to have their own trial. That has been the case in France, Spain, the US and Portugal. Even though it has been installed and working for eight or nine years in Germany and you can go there, as Mrs Bailey is doing, and see it working, each country wants to have a trial. We have not even had that in this country and that seems inexplicable. We are hoping that at least there is some investment in the desire to try this technology out and to see its benefits for today and the generations to come.

CHAIR —The technology has been in existence you said for some eight or nine years. Is that correct?

Mr Goodrich —It has been installed for some eight or nine years. It has been in existence for some 20 years because of the pathfinder mission. It has been installed and operating as a bushfire detection network in the Brandenburg province in Germany for the last eight or nine years. I also have some letters from the French official firefighting authorities talking about their experience of testing this equipment. I table those recommendation letters as well. These are not private organisations that are signing off on the technology. These are government agencies equivalent to our own state government and federal government agencies that are signing off that this technology is something that has value and is to be implemented.

CHAIR —It seems like a very practical and specific infrastructure. Our committee is looking at the various dynamic modelling systems of forecasting and all the issues related to that and perhaps even the related costs to try to get some sort of accuracy for weather forecasts that might prevent bushfires and floods and things. It seems to me that there is a system that is already there. The detection itself may be sufficient and maybe the emphasis should be on installing devices that can detect and therefore prevent rather than perhaps focusing on trying to get a dynamic modelling system that may give some picture of whether there is going to be a high fire danger or whatever. What would your view on that be?

Mr Goodrich —My view on that is that I am not saying Firewatch is the whole solution. It is part of the solution, but it is part of the solution that is currently not being investigated, not being embraced, because of existing bureaucratic systems that are in place. There is no doubt that having accurate weather forecasting is a good thing. Nobody would say anything to the contrary. But the only way to stop bushfire from impacting on life and property and, in future, greenhouse gas emissions is to detect it when it occurs. No-one knows when it will occur or where it will occur. That you cannot predict, particularly when arsonists are involved. But what you can do is provide blanket coverage with proven 21st-century technology to, as soon as the fire starts, detect it and notify the appropriate authorities to enable them to put it out. The only way to save life and property in respect of bushfire is to put it out. Of course preparations have to be put in place to minimise the risk associated with bushfire. Part of that is great information forecasting. Part of that is back-burning and equipping the general public with the appropriate tools, resources and knowledge to know what to do to protect their properties, to maintain their properties and to save life and property, but ultimately what you want is to know when a bushfire has started, before it becomes a major problem. You want to be able to go directly to it, to as near as one metre, with certainty as to what is happening there and put it out. That is what Firewatch can deliver, has been delivering over the last eight years in Germany and is delivering in almost a dozen countries around the world at the moment.

CHAIR —Thank you. That is very interesting. Thank you for bringing it to the attention of the committee. That is certainly something that we had not anticipated. Fran has spoken about it, so it is very good to finally hear from you. Thank you.

Mr Goodrich —Thank you for having me.

CHAIR —Will someone move to accept exhibit No. 1 and exhibit No. 2.

Mr RAMSEY —I so move.

Mr SYMON —Seconded.

CHAIR —Thank you.

[10.56 am]