Australia can be a land of extremes: as fires ravage one community, another must prepare for floods and severe rainfall. For those of us in the emergency services industry – from front line to the situation room – there's an imperative to focus on the lessons learnt in order to improve crisis response and recovery

Though there has been exponential technology progression in the past decade, efforts pioneered by agencies like Queensland's Reconstruction Authority (QRA) in 2011 underpin a real best-practice approach.

A uniformed approach to recovery

Though flood, fire and cyclone are very different disasters, the recovery approach they require is often very similar. A pragmatic attitude, seamless delivery and a highly effective result is what we look for across the board, and a key example was seen in 2011 through the efforts of QRA.

The sunny state's tumultuous 2011 saw continuous rainfall cause severe floods impact 75% of the state, followed by another major hit with Tropical Cyclone Yasi striking areas across the far north - considered one of the most powerful cyclones to have affected Queensland since records commenced.

In the wake of these consecutive crises, QRA was formed to guide the biggest rebuilding effort in the state's history and key aspects of this process undoubtedly still hold merit today.

Informing the community

First and foremost, QRA developed an interactive, online map to provide members of the public with a comprehensive, up-to-date view of the state's reconstruction.

The map was updated daily and integrated data from multiple sources including councils, members of the community, transport authorities and utilities, to provide all parties with a unified, real-time view of the status of infrastructure and assets across the state.

Developed on the ArcGIS platform, the map leveraged layers to turn specific datasets on and off, providing a clear, interactive view of affected communities and disaster imagery of impacted infrastructure and assets including schools, rail, homes, roads and bridges.

Further to providing this situational awareness for both internal and external use, the map gave community members and local authorities the chance to provide direct feedback about the impact of the flood in their community by facilitating a two-way information exchange.

“Enabling this information-sharing between the government and community ensured that authorities could see what was actually going on, and that QRA's programs were open and transparent.”

Subsequently, the QRA map has also influenced beyond the reconstruction effort, providing the impetus for collaboration between State Government departments and local councils - in a way never before seen in a major Australia reconstruction effort.

Recovery resources with duration

With recovery efforts taking many months, if not years and a focus on creating more resilient communities for the future, the second thing that QRA did really well was – working in collaboration with Queensland's Department of Natural Resources, Mines and Energy (DNRME) – to create the first ever state-wide, catchment-based floodplain mapping tool to identify the state's floodplains.

A key output of this initiative was the FloodCheck interactive map (now managed exclusively by DNRME); which allowed members of the community to view the likely extent of floodplains and historic floodplains, access flood information, view inundation areas, and, access flood and cyclone imagery where available.

As it did in the aftermath of 2011, and still today, the FloodCheck map means that key stakeholders across government, industry and the public, are able to make data-driven decisions about the level of flood risk in any given area - which is undoubtedly better than relying on guesswork and gut feelings.

Automating damage assessment

Throughout recovery, the real game changer for QRA was their transition from a traditional process of assessing damage and rebuilding infrastructure, through to an automated process of data analysis for smarter reconstruction decisions.

”In a nutshell, automating this data collection process allowed for deeper insights on existing and damaged infrastructure, which meant where and how assets were rebuilt considered greater resilience to withstand future weather threats.”

Working closely with Queensland Fire & Emergency Services (QFES), QRA first piloted the automation system - Damage Assessment and Reconstruction Monitoring (DARMsys) - in April 2011 following the floods, initially to collect real-time damage assessments in the field to support a program of building recovery audits and monitoring progress of reconstruction in key disaster-affected areas.

This first stage in this process saw officers from both QRA and QFES collecting real-time data as they undertake damage assessments in the community using a mobile device. This collection was conducted through flood and cyclone-affected communities to identify the level of damage, damage patterns, and where the greatest needs exist - street-by-street and house-by-house.

Follow-up assessments were the next crucial phase, conducted every three months on properties identified as 'damaged' during previous assessments and completed in collaboration with the Department of Communities, Disability Services and Seniors - with the main priority being the welfare of disaster-impacted residents and business owners in these affected communities.

By collaboratively feeding this information into DARMsys, QRA's various partnering agencies could all access the same map-based visualisations of damage data. In turn, these agencies saw major improvements in identifying the scale and scope of disaster impacts – with this data now being used in planning natural disaster response and recovery strategies.

Since its inception, QRA has used the approach across more than 14 natural disasters, and 45,000 individual Damage Assessments - with the system not only helping local and state government agencies provide assistance to the most vulnerable in a post-disaster phase, but serving as an exemplary approach to other recovery efforts across Australia.

Looking ahead, combining lessons learnt from agencies like QRA, with advancements in technology across AI and Deep Learning will continue to modernise emergency response and recovery across the country - and we are already seeing this in action, as we work with emergency services authorities including NSW RFS, QFES, EMV VIC, and SA CFS to get bushfire-affected communities back on their feet.

Discover how your organisation can adopt the same best-practise approaches to recovery as seen by Queensland’s Reconstruction Authority – have a chat with our public safety specialist and request a demo. For more information on the use of innovative solutions in emergency services, see our resources page.

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