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Digital Transformation for Safer Communities

NSW's Innovative Fire Danger Rating System

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service, together with Deloitte, recently transformed the Australian Fire Danger Rating System. The  remarkable digital transformation, incorporated multiple data points and advanced modelling to deliver accurate and timely fire danger ratings, providing crucial information to over 70,000 volunteers and communities to enhance preparedness and safety in combating future fires.

The devastating 2019/2020 bushfire season in New South Wales (NSW) left an indelible mark on the region, standing as the worst on record. The loss of land, property, homes, wildlife, and lives served as a poignant reminder of the changing climate, with fire seasons becoming longer, more intense and more frequent.  

In response to these challenges, to prepare communities and firefighters for future seasons, the Australian Fire Danger Rating System underwent a remarkable transformation, not only revolutionising the signs themselves but, more crucially, the science and technology underpinning them. What was once a manual process has now evolved into a sophisticated, accurate, and timely system through large-scale digital transformation.   

Previously, the manual system relied on limited data points from the Bureau of Meteorology. These data points were manually inputted into a separate system to determine the fire danger rating. The ratings were then disseminated to fire services across the state, with personnel driving out to change the road signs. This cumbersome process was slow and susceptible to human error.  

"The Fire Danger Rating is now automated., it's faster and it's accurate."

John Danson, CIO, NSW Rural Fire Service

Today, the process has significantly changed. Multiple data points, which consider specific land and vegetation characteristics, along with historical and future weather patterns, are automatically integrated into a modern digital system, resulting in improved accuracy. This information is simultaneously available online to over 70,000 volunteers, communities, and visitors through the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) website, the HazardsNearMe App, and soon-to-be digital road signs.  

The NSW Rural Fire Service collaborated with Deloitte on this ambitious digital transformation, focusing not only on seamlessly integrating technologies and data points into a unified system but also ensuring the continuity of the existing system during the development phase. This extensive work encompassed digital strategy development, technology capability assessment and implementation, and effective workforce communication to comprehend and utilise the new system.  

It is hoped that the new Fire Danger Rating System, along with advice on how to prepare and act in different fire conditions, will help firefighters prepare, and keep communities safer. 

Immersion From The Start

The immersion into the realities faced by NSW RFS volunteers and staff played a pivotal role in shaping the project. Ben Thwaites, Partner at Deloitte, recounts the team's firsthand experiences: "We met many volunteers, spent time with their leadership, and heard about their experiences during the 2019/2020 season. These encounters inspired us to be part of a transformative journey that harnesses data and information to better protect communities, people, and, ultimately, lives from bushfire risk."  

Embracing a unified approach with RFS leaders and volunteers, the initial focus revolved around gaining a comprehensive understanding of the organisation's current state of operation, its experiences during the bushfire season, the forthcoming journey, and the necessary pathway to make a substantial impact in the years ahead.  

Recognising the complexities inherent in such large-scale change, NSW RFS and Deloitte acknowledged that the journey would be challenging and take time. John Danson, CIO of NSW RFS, affirms, "I always knew that this was going to be reasonably complex technology work. We were integrating multiple different applications that all need to consume and make sense of the danger rating. That’s in addition to public-facing applications and internal applications. And it's critically important that the danger rating that goes to those applications is all the same."  

The key lay in collaboratively formulating a clear strategy and objectives from the outset, while ensuring that the workforce remained a crucial consideration alongside the technological advancements. 

From Manual to Digital: Building a Future-Ready Digitised System 

For John Danson, assuming the role of CIO presented an opportunity to modernise the technology required for enhanced community safety. John remarks, "When you have fires of that scale and magnitude, doing things in a manual way just doesn't scale. There was this huge appetite to say, how can we use technology better to help us respond when we need to? The confluence of these things meant that as a CIO, I had a wonderful opportunity to invest and bring the best of modern technology to the way we work."

The heart of the transformation lies in the scientific foundations behind the signage. Deloitte constructed a platform with the capacity to assimilate complex and enriched data about environmental conditions and weather patterns. This information, combined with advanced modelling, enables the system to consistently communicate accurate fire danger ratings at scale through various channels. These channels include road signs, websites, the HazardsNearMe app, and other third-party platforms.  

In any substantial digital transformation project, the volume of data, its accuracy, and effective utilisation are critical considerations. Many organisations find themselves overwhelmed by data, unable to process it efficiently or unsure of how best to harness its potential. For John, addressing these challenges formed a fundamental starting point: "We have huge amounts of data. The challenge for us has always been how do you access it at the right time? How do you make sense of it? We started off by looking at how we integrate data across key applications and business processes. Together with Deloitte, we examined all the applications we use in our office and identified the best way to integrate the data across them."  

The recommendation involved building robust integration capabilities into the platform, a process spanning three years. The benefits of this approach manifest in the ease of connecting systems, sharing data, and reducing the manual effort required to transfer data between applications, with technology now seamlessly handling the process. John highlights “Deloitte looked at all of the market leading approaches to integration, so we've been able to leverage the out-of-the-box features in the tooling, and we're finding it easier and easier over time to integrate new systems but also get reuse from existing systems we've already invested in integrating.”  

Collaboration played a central role throughout the transformative journey. Ben Thwaites explains, "Bringing together multiple organisations that all played a role in modernising the fire danger rating system, from data providers to academics studying data models and downstream organisations and systems consuming the data—this complexity posed a significant undertaking." 

The ability to leverage new features and enhancements was also a crucial factor. Successful digital transformation projects must allow for future upgrades and integrations to remain valuable. The selection of AWS as the cloud provider for RFS facilitated rapid provisioning of computing capabilities to scale out applications in response to increasing demands for fire services. Furthermore, this choice ensures the incorporation of new features and enhancements inherent to cloud-native products. 

Will the new Fire Danger Rating system make a tangible difference? 

Jess Thompson, a volunteer firefighter with NSW Rural Fire Service for 22 years, emphasizes the importance of preparation and awareness in combating fires. Recalling the devastation of the 2019/2020 bushfires, Jess underscores the significance of community readiness: "A large amount of New South Wales is bushfire-prone land, so preparation is key. Mitigating risks through hazard reduction, mechanical clearing, and individual preparation of homes and families can have a significant impact on the scale of fires." 

NSW RFS offers extensive resources to educate the community on fire preparedness. They actively engage in local events, encouraging residents to visit their local stations and seek guidance on effectively safeguarding their homes against bushfires.  

The new Fire Danger Rating System represents a critical component of such preparation, helping individuals understand how to respond to fires and enabling swift reactions.

Highlighting the system's significance, Jess explains, "We rely on the Fire Danger Rating System to help us plan resources. For example, who and how many should be at the station on a catastrophic fire day? We also use it to help make decisions in the field around the potential fire behaviour under certain weather conditions and to help give an indication to the crew as to perhaps how sporadic or how uncontrollable the fire may become under certain weather conditions.” 

Firefighters can now obtain a better indication of potential fire behaviour and the associated impact factors, such as fire speed, enabling improved preparedness and response strategies. 

"With the new danger rating, we can predict danger ratings up to four days in advance and be much more deliberate in the way we internally prepare to respond to bushfire risk. We can take preparatory action, such as positioning additional fire tankers, fire appliances, or aircraft, to ensure a faster and more timely response when necessary."

John Danson, CIO, NSW Rural Fire Service

Ultimately, the new Fire Danger Rating system provides clearer information to the public, furnishes emergency services with better scientific insights, and delivers more accurate and timely data for informed decision-making by both communities and emergency personnel.  

Ben Thwaites eloquently expresses his pride in the project's outcome: "The thing that makes me most proud about this work is that it's not every day you get to work on a project that helps save lives."  

"It's not every day you get to work on a project that helps save lives"

Ben Thwaites, Partner, Deloitte

Get in touch

Ben Thwaites

Partner, Technology Strategy & Transformation

Megan Maletic

Partner, Public Sector Workforce Transformation Leader