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How can leaders use technological innovation to mitigate and respond to a crisis?

Kim Zagaris spent the first part of his career serving in the army, but a twist of fate saw him switch from army tanks to fire trucks. As he drove home from a night out with his mates, he was confronted by a fire out of control. Pulling up, a firefighter directed him to grab a hose. It was a sliding door moment.

Decades on, Chief Kim Zagaris was named California’s Fire Chief of the Year. He’s been involved in every catastrophic emergency in California over a distinguished 40-year career and has placed technological innovation at the heart of modern-day firefighting completely changing the way agencies respond to crises.

“We're actually looking at real-time vehicle location, or where resources are, and how quickly we'll get to an incident, and matching up those resources with a database… and we're using geographic information and technology to do it.”

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    Chief Kim Zagaris: I've been through a lot of different disasters, not only in California, but around the country, such as Oklahoma City in 1995 and the Murrah building bombing, and the support of 9/11 and our own floods and our own emergencies. But I will tell you that to me, at the end of the day, what's really made things come together is just watching the business that I'm in evolve over and over and over.

    We constantly, much like the news business, have to remake how we're doing it, how we're meeting those challenges. Coming up with new technologies, new ways of adjusting to meet the needs for the next go around that's what's been really neat about it.

    Stan Grant: There are some people who run instinctively to danger. May not be most of us, but we're glad these people actually exist. One of these people, a man known as Chief Z, Kim Zagaris, has spent his lifetime battling fires and disasters in California.

    On Directions with me, Stan Grant you'll find out how the increased use of GIS technology is creating more consistent disaster warning systems.

    Support for this episode comes from the country's leading mapping technology and services provider, Esri Australia. To learn more about how is Esri tech is supporting the world's most progressive leaders, visit esriaustralia.com.au/trialblaze.

    Chief Kim Zagaris was California's fire chief of the year. Someone who's been involved in every major and catastrophic emergency in California over 42 years of service. But it's no longer enough to have the best hoses, the most expensive fire trucks or the best trained disaster response teams. Nowadays, leaders in emergency services need to share data and insights in real-time so a potential disaster is mitigated or so our response can be swift.

    How exactly can you prepare for the unknown? What are the tools at our disposal which can help predict the threats and inform how we respond – and in particular – to respond rapidly in a chaotic situation? Chief Zagaris, welcome to Directions.

    Chief Kim Zagaris: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here today.

    Stan Grant: You've described yourself – and I can relate to this – as an adrenaline junkie. Is that what is required to do what you've done?

    Chief Kim Zagaris: I don't know if it's necessarily an adrenaline junkie, but I think more than anything, it's a commitment, dedication to serve. Adrenaline does help!

    Stan Grant: There is something isn't it, there is something though that most people faced with danger do the logical thing and that is to run the other way. You are trained to do the opposite, but there must be something in you as well that attracts you to that.

    Chief Kim Zagaris: I think it's… there's excitement, there's challenge, there's opportunities. Man against nature.

    Stan Grant: I spent a lot of time as a reporter covering danger zones around the world, war zones around the world. And we do the same thing – if we hear gunfire, we run to the gunfire. We need to be there to do it. But of course, you know, when people ask me that question – why do you do it? And I say, well, yes, it's my job. And it's important. But I always find in those circumstances, you go into work mode. You fall back to your training.

    Chief Kim Zagaris: You do you fall back on the training, it's those early years that bring you to where you're at later in life, but you stay very focused on the threat that's in front of you and how to mitigate those and get people out of harm's way.

    Stan Grant: What was it that drew you to this career?

    Chief Kim Zagaris: You know, I tell folks, I said, I'd just gotten out of the army, I was in the tanks. I was in armor, and I was working in a mill on a plainer where you take green lumber and stack it back on the deck so it can be shipped out. And I was coming home one night after closing the bar or the pub and happened to see a big glow as I came up over the hill and boy, it was a big fire in a commercial structure.

    I pulled in, and fire engine was just pulling in and firefighters were screaming, “Grab the hose” and next thing is I found myself the end of the hose.

    And a while later another firefighter came in and he says, get the hell off this line. And, you know, I thought to myself as I went back to my apartment, I said, that was pretty exciting.

    By the next day I was calling out at the community college, looking into fire science and I put my GI bill to use and found myself entering the fire service.

    Stan Grant: Yeah see, you are the person that absolutely runs toward the fire.

    And from the military to this as well. So again, attraction to the military. There is a great sense of service, but there's also that desire, I suppose. Is excitement part of that attraction?

    Chief Kim Zagaris: Like I said before, it's part of the attraction, but also duty to serve. And you know it was very rewarding. The fire service is very paramilitary, just like the military is in a lot of ways, but you know, you work as a team with a with a group of people and you live with them, you grow up with them.

    It's definitely a different profession and a very exciting one and provides challenges and opportunities. You have good days and bad. I often tell people that it was… They said, oh, I'm being the fire chief. I tell you what I said – my worst day in the field was better than my best day being the fire chief.

    And at the end of the day, my heart was always, always out there on the line where the rubber meets the road and the firefighters do the work each and every day.

    Stan Grant: It's the same. I have exactly the same feeling as a reporter, the normal progression and the progression in your career is, you know, you spend your time in the field, you get onto the anchor desk and that's seen as being sort of ‘upwards and onwards’.

    But when I look at the story, when I see the big event, I can feel that surge, that desire to be there. And it's not just that I want to be there, I want to do a good job. And I want to work with the people who are committed to doing a good job. How much of that was, was your motivation?

    Chief Kim Zagaris: I'll tell you this, it’s nothing better than the work you do with them each and every day. But I tell people, I thought I'd be in the field my whole career.

    And, at one point, I was told, hey, you need to promote. And I said, I mean, I'm happy being an assistant chief. Oh no, you really need to step down and be the fire chief. And I said, well, it'll be a cut in pay… and I said, I just love going to emergencies with my hair on fire. I said, nah.

    Well, they kept twisting my arm. And finally, they talked me into taking the job a couple of weeks later and I often tell people I still remember the day they sent out the announcement that I was going to be at the State Fire and Rescue Chief. And I tell people, I go, it was like the announcement went out, and I could almost hear outside the window, “Oh my God, what were they thinking?”

    Stan Grant: Why?

    Chief Kim Zagaris: Because I’d been a rabble rouser and, you know, always looking for constant change and trying to make things different. And I'm very outspoken and that's not your usual, everyday fire chief. I would tend to tell you, and then, that was 17 years later, I retired out as a fire chief and, you know, just a very different time of that.

    Like I said, that entire time, I'd always wished I'd stayed, stayed back out on the line. But, during that 17 years as the fire chief was able to accomplish quite a bit. You always think you can get more done and you realise later in life that you get done what you can given the politics, given the circumstances, given your budget – a number of situations. But I still had a very good run, a very good success.

    Stan Grant: I had a chuckle when you described yourself as a rabble-rouser because, I don't wanna give away any secrets here, but you did say once you'd been suspended a couple of times.

    Chief Kim Zagaris: That's true. I always tell people I said, it's not a big thing. I said, I've had 30 days off. It isn't as though they haven't tried to fire me more than once in my career, but I've survived them all. It made me a better person, it gave me a better opportunity to realise, you know, that throughout my career, I had a lot of good influences on me and other folks who want to just to see things changed.

    Stan Grant: How does that shape your leadership? You've been from the guy who picks up a hose when you're not even in the fire service to the rabble-rouser, to the person who wants to speak their mind, the person who's reluctant to take on that mantle of leadership and then finds them that in leadership anyway.

    Chief Kim Zagaris: At the end of the day, I worked with a lot of people that were afraid to speak up or didn't want to speak up for a number of reasons. I've never had that problem. I don't mind speaking up. I don't mind questioning things or challenging items, you want to be sensitive of people's feelings, but at the end of the day, we have a job to do.

    We need to make things work. We in emergency services always criticize ourselves – probably more than anybody after actions. The idea is to make things better than when we found them and really find out how we can do things better the next time.

    And then we can do that by being honest, upfront, and not being afraid to say what needs to be said. I think the harder part is probably when you move up in the ranks and the politics get a little stickier and we're dealing with state government or a national government. It makes things more interesting as we work our way up and those things we need to say or do to get ahead.

    Stan Grant: You talk about government. You were dealing with the Terminator. Your boss for a period was Arnold Schwartzenegger.

    Chief Kim Zagaris: I've had some great conversations over my time with the Governor and we'd get together every spring and talk about how the fire season was looking, what we thought, where we would be.

    I'd say more than once in our spring meeting, he says, “You take care of the fires, we'll take care of the money”.

    Stan Grant: That's a good deal!

    Chief Kim Zagaris: At the end of the fiscal year, the bean counters would come in and always kind of laugh. They come in and Band Aid the wounded after the battle.

    And, I'd have to remind them, I said, I know you weren't in our meeting in spring, but the Governor said, we take care of the fires and you'll take care of the money. And, how do you think we're gonna pay for this? I said, I don't know… I'll put it on my expense account.

    And they'd never had a sense of humour in fiscal. 

    Stan Grant: One of the things that you've said is that when you became the chief, you actually found as well that you didn't have the freedom that you thought you might have. You're in a position to make decisions, but you're not necessarily free to make those decisions.

    Chief Kim Zagaris: You know, at the end of the day, we all have bosses. And even at an upper level of state government, you realise that to get some things done, you've got to maneuver, and you've got to adjust and you've got to try to appease, or you've got to sell your program to people in the department of finance and then with legislative support staff and then ultimately with the legislators and then in hearings.

    And it's always kind of funny when I used to go before the legislature, I'd always bring my laptop computer and I flop it open in the meeting and on it there had a sticker that a friend of mine gave me from Phoenix Fire Department and it says, "be nice". And you know you sit down at the table and you look up at the elected officials, and they say, is that for us chief? And I said, well, it's surely not for me.

    And I'd get them to laugh and you know, most people don't survive in a state job at my level for more than a couple of years, let alone 17. So I was able to intermix with a lot of different people and do some things which ended up making a big success. I had a great support of the California Fire Service and a lot of legislators and the bosses I worked for. From that side, it really worked out extremely well.

    As you maneuver, not everybody you meet, you're going to make your friend. Some people you're going to meet, you're going to make an enemy out of one way or another, because you're getting something that they're not, or they just don't like what you're doing or how you're doing it.

    Stan Grant: Now I said before, over that 40 plus year career, you've been involved in every major catastrophe, whether it be fires, but also things like 9/11. What stands out for you?

    Chief Kim Zagaris: A lot of different things stand out. I've been through a lot of different disasters not only in California, but around the country, such as, Oklahoma city in 1995, the Murrah building bombing and the support of 9/11 and our own floods our own emergencies, Alaska flight 261 went off the coast of Ventura into the water and no survivors. I've seen a lot of different things.

    But I will tell you that to me, what's really made things come together is just watching the business that I'm in evolve over and over and over. We constantly, much like the news business, have to remake how we're doing it, how we're meeting those challenges, coming up with new technologies, new ways of adjusting to meet the needs for the next go around.

    I've met people all across this country. I've been fortunate enough to be in the White House, be in Congress, the Senate in the US and travelled to a number of international countries and talked about the state of California in the US in a lot of different ways. Just talking about how we meet our challenges and work on technology. It's pretty amazing.

    Stan Grant: When you talk about new technologies as well, it puts me in mind of something that you've also spoken about, and that is the need for mitigation before you actually get to the disaster. What can be done to head that off? Is there still not enough done on mitigation?

    Chief Kim Zagaris: Still not enough.

    And I would tell you that, unfortunately at least in the US, we're still spending more on the response side of the house than we are in mitigation. In fact, a federal emergency management agency says for every dollar we spend on mitigation, we can save $6 on response side, down the road. And we're nowhere near where we need to be.

    But, I will tell you that like no time or ever before, technology is really here. It's how we harvest it. How we use it. And how we manage it to where we're going and where we want to get to around the corners. What's really key in today's day and age.

    Stan Grant: And when you talk about technology, of course, the GIS technology is important and that mapping to be able to use that technology, to collect data, to be able to see in advance what you may be dealing with, what are the opportunities there?

    Chief Kim Zagaris: They're great. And I would tell you now I get to work with a lot of great people, but, we've been working with the program, at the International Fire Chiefs called NMAS – National Mutual Aid System. That's actually looking at real-time vehicle location, or where resources are and how quickly we'll get to get them to an incident and matching up those resources with a database.

    And in a number of different areas in how we share the notifications to move resources, so it better enables us, not only to have better situational awareness, but be able to predict where things are and where they're going to be. So we can better allocate resources and move those.

    Stan Grant: Given what you've outlined and just the sheer numbers of it all, you spend a dollar on mitigation, you save $6 on response. It surprises me that there hasn't been a greater uptake of, of utilising these technologies. Why is that?

    Chief Kim Zagaris: For one it's redirecting dollars, additional dollars cause you don't want to take away from response dollars now. But it's actually getting those elected officials to put more money into that side of the house.

    We're lagging behind in capability to meet the responses, so it's tough. And I think it's going to take a strong commitment out of our leaders and also out of our elected officials to push them to where we need to get to, and sometimes break away from what is easy and something we're comfortable with, versus going towards an area that we may not be as comfortable and that's what leadership really is about.

    Stan Grant: And listeners, if you'd like to learn more about Chief Z’s technology-led approach to managing disasters, you can jump onto our website, that's directionspodcast.com.au. There's a heap of great resources to get you thinking about how you might use technology when it comes to your next crisis.

    And that really does open up our hypothetical because it touches on so many of these issues Chief Z.

    Let me run through the outline for you. So you're now parachuted into the middle of a fire storm, both a real fire, and also the politics of dealing with a fire. You're a newly appointed Australian emergency services commissioner, your remit covers one state, but of course these fires are going to cross over to other borders. It's devastating for local communities, for wildlife, significant damage.

    You're also – of course – dealing with the politics of this moment as well. There are areas of cultural significance. There are ecologically important areas. There are farming districts, so there are different political actors at play as well.

    What's your first response as someone who has been brought in, you're newly appointed, you're dealing with an emergency right now? What do you bring from your experience and your leadership immediately in setting your priorities?

    Chief Kim Zagaris: You know, I mainly look at, what the overall situational analysis is, and that's talking both with your staff and those folks who appointed you into that office. Doesn't really matter where you're at – protection, life, property and the environment and our culture is really significant.

    I always look at it in that cut of the pie. Some days – and I get to talk to a lot of leaders around the country and sometimes around the world – but, if you're more worried about keeping your job than doing your job, you're probably going to fail to start with. At the end of that day, if you're not willing to do what's right – put your job on the line, then maybe you're not going to survive it.

    Stan Grant: And you're dealing – of course – with a fast-moving situation, a deeply political situation, and one where people are scared and they're angry. The media is demanding answers as well. In these circumstances, people have already turned on political leaders. The Prime Minister and the state leader, the state Premier have visited some of the areas and people have screamed at them that they have not done enough and that they weren't prepared for this and they've left them at the mercy of this fire.

    Now the media asks you that question, who are you here to serve? Are you here to serve the people or the politics? Have politicians let us down? What's your answer?

    Chief Kim Zagaris: I'm actually here to serve the people. And the politicians are who are elected by them.

    I'm not here to appease really, the politicians. I'm here to give them answers, but I'm really here to give answers to the public. Talk about what worked, what didn't work. I'm here to actually tell the public, be more transparent. I think, leaders as a whole, the more they can talk about those situations and the decisions they’re making at the time, will go a long ways.

    And actually, the public understanding what we have to deal with. I will tell you that leadership in this particular end means being able to answer those things I said before to the public. Being honest. We may not have the answers, we’re working on it we'll get back to you. I also believe that the public sometimes has a higher expectation of government than there really is.

    And I generally tell people here in the States, here in California, we don't have enough fire engines to put in everybody's driveway. Just don't have that capability. That's part of the discussion that needs to take place early on and about working together from both the response from government, as well as response of people's own personal responsibilities to protect their families, to protect their property, to be prepared.

    To respond and evacuate when we need them to do those things. And I think again, that people look to government to solve all their problems and that's really not what government is going to always be able to do. And I think that we have limitations in our abilities, we have to manage those expectations of both the politicians and the public when you serve in these leadership roles.

    Stan Grant: Government has money, it has resources and it has to make choices. Now I'm a journalist who's done some background digging in this and I've published a story on this day that says, in the months leading up to this fire, you had made a recommendation to government that they invest in geospatial technology, in some mapping that could have identified where the risks were.

    And they said to you, no, we don't have the money for that. You said to them, this decision will cost lives and they said, well, we're going to go ahead with it anyway. I've published this story on this day and people are really angry. I now come to you and I say to you this question, do these politicians have blood on their hands? What's your answer?

    Chief Kim Zagaris: I would tell you that the politicians had to make some decisions at the end of the day. They probably believe they made the right decisions. I would probably tell them we'll be fighting for again, an investment into geo technology. So we hopefully do not continue to repeat the past problems and disasters that we've now come to experience.

    Stan Grant: But now you're dealing with two issues. You've criticised the government, you've agreed that they made the wrong decision and you're also dealing with this fast-moving fire. It's a political fire storm and it's a real fire. How do you – as a leader – manage both of those things?

    Chief Kim Zagaris: You've already put yourself out there that ‘Hey, geotechnology's where we need to be, and this will cost lives’. You're going to look pretty bad if at the end of the day, now you're going to flip flop on what you actually said. You either meant it or you didn't mean it. And again, I said earlier, if you're not willing to go down with the ship for what you actually put on the table then shame on you. You have to be comfortable enough in your own skin and the job that you're doing and stand up and fight for it.

    If I made a statement, I've got to live with it and, unless I find myself to be wrong or  incorrect.

    Stan Grant: And in this moment, you become a people's hero. You're seen as standing up. You're not only dealing with the fire, but you're standing up to politicians as well when people are demanding real answers. You're accountable. You are the face of this response to this disaster. Do opportunities like this, when you have that moment, do you seize those opportunities and say, here is the time to make a difference? Do you turn the crisis into an opportunity to make sure that coming out of this, the right decisions are made?

    Chief Kim Zagaris: You can surely work back towards that direction. Again, politicians are not going to be happy with you, but if you're going to be true to what you're committed to, you're going to try to make this thing work for the future. You've got to be true to the people you serve. You took an oath. And it wasn't an oath to be politically correct. It was an oath to protect and serve.

    You stand by your commitment. You try to work through it. Yeah, you're going to upset some politicians. I don't know, I don't think it's a question about being a hero to the public. I think it's about being responsible and doing your job and standing by your guns. If you've got the data to support where you're at.

    Stan Grant: This hypothetical's been great because it's revealed so much of who you are, all the things that we talked about before the hypothetical. You're the guy who sees smoke and runs to it and grabs a hose and digs in, even though you're not yet even in the fire service. You're the rabble rouser. You're the guy who gets suspended.

    You're the guy who stands up for what you believe is right. And you're the guy who's prepared to speak truth to power. And in every question that I asked you there, you did not hesitate. There was not a moment where you looked for a diplomatic answer. You absolutely took all of that on.

    And it brings me to this I suppose, the idea of authenticity. How important is that to you? That idea of authenticity. You are who you are. You learn how to manage, but fundamentally, you are who you are, and that's why you're there.

    Chief Kim Zagaris: And it's hard to change who you've become at this point in your life.

    Stan Grant: And you shouldn't, right? If you're a leader you probably shouldn't.

    Chief Kim Zagaris: I would tell you that who I am is actually a number of people that have mentored me through my career, and that I've admired as well as several people who – I wouldn't want to be them, and didn't like working for them… Or a collaboration of both things in time.

    And I always tell people that I said, look, we're about communication, coordination and collaboration in today's day and age. We can get more done by getting along than by fighting. In fact, fighting drains more resources and provides more negativity.

    What we need in today's day is that communication and collaboration, that coordination to get those things done that the public expects us to do. They called in an emergency, they want service. They want it now.

    Stan Grant: And to finish up on the idea of leadership – as someone who's been a leader and who has worked from the ground up – who do you look to? If the qualities you were looking for, for someone who would be your successor or a young person that you could identify as having leadership qualities. What would you look for?

    Chief Kim Zagaris: I look for individuals that can be articulate, honest, forthcoming. People with a vision. I'm looking for folks that are hard workers, committed, dedicated, they're willing to put it all on the line – including their job – to do what's right.

    Stan Grant: And when you say putting it all on the line, that can come at a cost can't it? I mean the, your job's been all-consuming and you've seen some terrible things, but balancing that with being a human, being a person, having a family, having a life. How do you do that and still be a good leader and still put it all on the line? Has that been a learning curve for you?

    Chief Kim Zagaris: You know, whether you're a leader of an organisation or you're the president of a small company or large company, you make decisions in life what you're willing to accept and not accept, sometimes at a personal cost. It's how you deal with them, how you recover from them, how you move on from all these decisions that you make.

    I don't see that there's an easy road. because at the end of the day, more people are going to take shots or people are going to question your leadership, but if not you, then who?

    I never wanted to be a fire chief. I never thought I'd be the fire chief, let alone did I think I would last 17 years as fire chief. But I will tell you this, it has been both rewarding and heartbreaking at different times. And I take the good with the bad. I don't know that I would change my life.

    If I'd change anything I wish I had more time to get back to my family. But at the end of the day, my son – who just turned 42 today – following in my footsteps. He's a firefighter engineer in Novato, just North of San Francisco in Marin County who is going to be a fire captain on January 1 and can't tell you how proud I am of that.

    You know, he's different than me, but he's smarter than me in a lot of ways.

    Stan Grant: I'll just get a final thought from you because part of leadership is knowing when to say it's over. When you're done, when you feel as if you've given everything and you're looking for that succession, how do you know, how do you approach that decision?

    We've talked about leadership from the early stages to the, the middle stages to periods of crisis, but that managing that transition when you believe that it's time for that change and to walk away… very difficult. What's your advice to people coming up to making that critical decision, because that's a leadership decision too?

    Chief Kim Zagaris: I'm one of those people who went past the point I could have retired early and enjoyed things and stayed longer to hopefully get more accomplished. But at the end of the day, you can never accomplish everything that you probably set out to do. I just don't think it's possible in government. But I always believed that it was better to go out on top than it was to go out during a crisis when somebody else was determining your exit. And I've stayed long enough, I've had enough battles.

    I knew I'd stayed longer than I planned. Sometimes I miss not being in the slot, but most days I don't. And I surely don't miss the late-night calls and my wife's, going and having to grab my phone and go downstairs and take the calls and not interrupt the family.

    So, everybody now should know when's a good time to go, but that's how I did it.

    Stan Grant: You know the really sad thing about this is that these conversations have to come to an end. I could just talk to you all day. It's such a rich life and so much wisdom, and I've loved talking to someone who can just call it as it is. It's a fantastic quality of leadership and certainly the sort of leaders I've always responded to.

    Chief Z, it's been an absolute pleasure to have you on Directions. Thank you for being so generous with your time. And I'm sure I join everyone in saying thank you for your service as well – to your country and your people.

    Chief Kim Zagaris: Thank you, I look forward to continuing working with my colleagues in Australia.

    Stan Grant: Chief Kim Zagaris – and for more about his work responding to disasters, visit directionspodcast.com.au.

    On the next episode, Brian Boulmay is on a mission to democratise data. The digital transformation expert believes multinational companies can create greater efficiency, accuracy of insight, and better returns if they share data. And he's done just that at BP with 70,000 employees.

    Brian Boulmay: We had a saying in the company for any large program it's people, process and technology. And it was in that order on purpose – people first, then you bring in the process necessary and the technology is really just a supporting element.

    If you get the people to understand how they're adding value to the business, you show them how they're driving some of that bottom line impact, how they're helping the business solve problems. People will follow. We've used a lot of these core technologies, literally for decades. We were some of the first industry to really get into geographic technology, but to use it at this scale, this was new.

    Stan Grant: That's the next episode of Directions.

    This is a Boustead Geospatial Technologies production. This episode was narrated by me, Stan Grant and Chief Kim Zagaris. Sound engineered by Nearly Media and Deadset Studios with editing support from Kim Douglas and Sydney Podcast Studios. Artwork by Superscript, and our Executive Producers are Alicia Kouparitsas and Raquel Jackson.

    If you like our show, please give us a five-star rating. Leave a review and be sure to tell your friends. Follow us on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcast. You can also download a free trial of Esri software, check out our show notes and access other resources at directionspodcast.com.au.

    The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are solely those of the participants and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of Esri Australia, its subsidiaries or partners.

    Hypothetical scenarios presented as part of this episode, are purely fictional. And while they may draw on current issues, they do not depict the actions, values, or beliefs of any specific individual and/or organisation.

    And finally, this production would not be possible without the support of Esri Australia.

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