Our Innovation

Loftus Volunteer Bushfire Brigade of the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) is located in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire. Until recently the Brigade functioned like any other RFS brigade with inventory checks being written up on overly copied photocopies, fire reports using endless reams of paper and crews forever finding themselves navigating through unfamiliar territory when travelling interstate to lend assistance to other Rural Fire Districts.

Loftus Brigade took stock of its aged practices, and committed itself to communication modernisation across the station and the vehicles.  Through the generosity of the local Sutherland Shire community, public donations through events such as the annual Santa Runs and weekend Bunnings’ BBQs, along with members’ technical skills, Loftus Brigade upgraded its technical capabilities to become one of the Information Technology front runners of any emergency service in Australia.

 The early thoughts were around developing a visually pleasing and intuitive website to get information out to brigade members and to the public.  This quickly evolved through members’ creativity and technical skills into building a comprehensive web portal and communications package.  

The initial project began with a public facing web site; a hub of local and RFS wide information.  The first phase provided members with their own secure section and the ability to gain, pass on and report any events that affected the Brigade in all facets of day to day operations. With this came the station intranet, members’ connectivity (Members Intranet) and the functionality to capture and report on information. Open Source programs enabled the rapid implementation from design to reality.

 The Members Intranet, through its portal, offers members and officers alike with the ability to register their availability or expression of interest for operational and social events. It allows officers to upload and lodge Fire Reports simultaneously with the station’s Cloud Drive and the local Fire Control Centre, and efficiently process a raft of other reports and documents required in the duties of being a volunteer officer in the Rural Fire Service.

On the back of the popular success of the Members Intranet, Loftus expanded its web functionality further and commenced with on-line inventories for its fire fighting appliances and Personnel-Carrier. Members are now able to instantly report any fault or error with a vehicle’s inventory or mechanics to the appropriate officer, who in turn can progress a maintenance request. A visual guide and dynamically adjustable inventory ensures that all items were correctly reported and recorded as operationally ready or not.

Each recorded event is programmed to automatically display on the Station Issue Register for follow up, and subsequently able to be signed off as progressed or completed.

Soon after, the Intranet was complemented with a suite of self serve options for members including training requests and documentation, financial re-imbursement and equipment requests, on-line text field PDF forms for all Operational reports and requests. Indulgently, an online ‘Shopping List’ and ‘Wish List’ was added to assist in better maintenance and future station development and advancement.  Naturally a social media presence followed, utilising Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to pass information to the local community, members and friends.

The next phase was to deliver these functions in a mobile format; allowing access from station vehicles plus members’ office and home PCs. 

Through the generosity of the community and the dedicated time of the members, Loftus raised the funds to purchase three Samsung tablets and hardware.  The tablets were mounted in the vehicles, and the connectivity obstacle was overcome with the purchase of a Telstra 3G Wi-Fi pod affixed to each fire fighting appliance. The system had evolved into a true mobile command and information package.

Each of the two appliances, now a mobile command vehicle in itself, has the ability to video conference and email from any location where data coverage was achievable over the Telstra network.  It also has the ability to provide live video feed of an incident, receive up to the minute weather information from the Bureau, send and receive complex or sensitive information, photos or video, to senior officers or district office staff. Officers can lodge reports on the fly or supply situation reports with photos of any incident from most anywhere in the country, and being able to download and view maps, aerial photography and topographical information means better dynamic planning and preparedness. 

For the officers, their situational awareness is increased by accessing live and current data on any location, terrain or incident at anytime, anywhere.

The third Samsung tablet was assigned to what has been dubbed the officers’ Go-Pack.  The Go-Pack is a sturdy case carrying everything an officer, working away from our applicances, may need to operate on an Out Of Area (OOA) deployment. No matter the deployment location or event, the officer would have the ability to deploy remotely to any part of Australia and be provided some level of connectivity. Maps can be viewed or cached for viewing during non connectivity periods, and reports, photos or video can either be sent and received immediately or cached for later and also video conferencing back to brigade station or even to family or friends in the event of a special event of emergency.

 This Go-Pack recently received its baptism of fire, figuratively speaking, on its first deployment to the Clarence Valley fires. Members of Sutherland District and Hornsby District, a 20 strong taskforce were deployed remotely for three days to assist with a local fire situation. The Senior Deputy Captain from Loftus was assigned as Task Force Leader, and harnessed with the ability that was provided by the Go-Pack, the kit and its ability were tested and proven beyond expectations and received an outstanding review from the local Fire Control Officer and Incident Controller.

The Go-Pack has been tested more recently during the Coonabarabran emergency situation. This time the Go-Pack came to the attention of other fire fighters on deployment, many of whom were keen to take the idea further at their respective stations.

With the members’ intranet, and field functionality tried and tested under operational conditions, attention was turned to develop and deliver the third phase of the project, the in-station package that would support Loftus and extend to district needs. 

Loftus station and its facilities, graciously provided by Sutherland Shire Council and the Rural Fire Service, enables the brigade to assist the Sutherland RFS district as a marshalling point for other appliances and crews during large scale events and exercises, and as a district training centre.

With a small jealous green eye for the ‘Wonderwall’ at RFS Headquarters Lidcombe, some of funds raised were used to build a smaller station sized version of the Wonderwall, and facilitate its integration into the Loftus network. The Wall provides managers, officers and crews with the capability, functionality and information to respond to and manage any incident.

The project is now in its final stage and only small housekeeping matters remain, but equipped with this technology and the ability it provides, and thanks to the continued support of the local community, council, department, supporters and membership, Loftus Volunteer Bushfire Brigade will continue to improve ability, skill and the technology to provide a greater level of service.

Loftus Brigade is more than happy to share its freeware or templates with any volunteer organisation and can be contacted via their website or Facebook page.

Story by Loftus Volunteer Bushfire Brigade members.

Photos courtesy of Sharon Quandt Photography.