10.000 fire fighters battled the Black Saturday fires in Australia
10.000 fire fighters battled against the Black Saturday fires in Australia

Michael Foreshew takes a seat on the lawn to watch his son’s cricket match on an atypically hot February morning in a Melbourne suburb. Thermometers read 46° Celsius, the highest temperature ever recorded for the city. Sustained northwesterly winds from across Australia’s desert center have dried out the pitch and the air, and the sun beats down mercilessly on the hardened ground, the players, and their parents.

Just a few runs in, the match is called on account of heat – a testament to the harsh conditions: “As you might imagine, cancelling a cricket match in Australia is tantamount to treason,” Foreshew jokes. Those temperatures have endured for three days. The little rain that has fallen during the summer months has caused brush to grow vigorously, only to dry out and die soon after, contributing to an already dangerous accumulation of highly flammable vegetation on the ground throughout the state. “The conditions were there for something big,” Foreshew recounts.

“We just couldn’t have foreseen how big it was going to be.” Foreshew is executive manager of technology services for the Victoria Country Fire Authority (CFA), a network of 61,000 personnel throughout the state with a legal charter to protect life, livelihood, and property – in that order. Since 1945, CFA staff, currently 97% of whom are volunteers, have been educating the community on fire safety and responding to fire incidents.

In addition to overseeing CFA’s software systems, Foreshew looks after the organization’s fleet of 1,800 radio towers, 10,000 radios, and 30,000 pagers. “When you have people giving their time – and sometimes putting their lives on the line, many voluntarily – the least I can do is give them the best technology I can,” he says. On that February 7, 2009, known now in Australia as Black Saturday, many CFA staff did put their lives on the line, in the world’s eighth worst fire disaster in recorded history.

Black Saturday

After the cancelled cricket match, Foreshew headed to the office to relieve his IT colleague, who had been monitoring the critical conditions throughout the night. CFA staff had been on high alert, responding quickly to put out fires before they threatened to reach a critical mass. Directing support and resources to the areas and personnel in need, Foreshew and his team witnessed firsthand a tragedy unfolding. By midday, despite CFA’s best efforts, the strong, dry northwesterly winds, clocked as high as 125 km per hour, whipped up small isolated burns into full-fledged bushfires. Then in early evening, the wind swung around, hitting the fires from the southwest and pushing them in a completely different direction.

What had been the narrow fires’ flanks became their fronts – some 80 km wide moving at 100 km per hour. Towns thought to have escaped the fires now lay directly in their path. A community responds Bushfires from the Black Saturday complexes continued throughout the month, with the last extinguished in mid-March 2009. Consuming 450,000 hectares, the fires weren’t the largest CFA had battled.

They were, however, the most destructive: Flames destroyed more than 3,500 structures. More significantly, 173 Victorian residents perished, and 414 were injured. “That’s the only measure of magnitude,” says Foreshew. If fortune can be drawn from the tragedy in Victoria, it is this: The loss from the Black Saturday fires brought an already tight-knit community even closer together. “To me as a Victoria community member,” says Foreshew, “the one thing that really stood out was the amount of good out there.”

Since Black Saurday, citizens have stepped up their engagement in fire safety initiatives and supported each other in preparations for the 2009/2010 bushfire season. CFA helped them do it. “We have always had a large community safety agenda that addresses our diverse population,”Foreshew says.

CFA’s primary method for reaching out to this community is what is known as Community Meetings, educational programs held frequently by paid staff, volunteers, or the local fire brigade. Residents learn more about what they can do to prevent, prepare for, and react to various hazards, while CFA learns more about residents’ backgrounds and risk profiles. CFA also uses these meetings as a venue for community fire briefings and fire management trainings, especially just before periods of heightened risk.

“The problem was that, until recently, we organized these meetings with spreadsheets and through word of mouth,” Foreshew explains. CFA relied on meeting-notice flyers tacked to telephone poles and post office bulletin boards to encourage attendance. “We realized that if we wanted to better engage with the community and give them the information they need, we had to make it a lot easier,” Foreshew says. Black Saturday gave new impetus to CFA’s vision of an innovative solution to manage its relationships with Victoria’s residents, not least to support in the rebuilding activity.

Read on: Fighting fires with information

Saving Lives: Michael Foreshew at the headquarters of the Victoria Country Fire Authority.
Saving Lives: Michael Foreshew at the headquarters of the Victoria Country Fire Authority.

Fighting fires with information

Foreshew had been with CFA only seven months prior to Black Saturday. At a previous position with a financial services company, he had mapped out a customer relationship management strategy to provide clients with information to make informed decisions. “The process is very similar to what we are now doing at CFA,” Foreshew explains. “We have a message we need to get out. Not about the best companies to invest in but about when residents need to change the batteries in their smoke detectors or how they can safely store petrol.”

In CFA’s case, success isn’t measured in sales, but in message retention. “We want to compare the information on our outreach campaigns with the number of fire calls, injuries, or other incidents. When these numbers are down, we know our message is getting through,” Foreshew says. “Effectively, this is a marketing campaign – not for increasing sales but for saving lives.” The application CFA chose was SAP Customer Relationship Management (SAP CRM). Through SAP CRM and Web services, residents access CFA’s system via a browser to book meetings and enter their contact and demographic information. CFA uses this information to compile risk profiles for individuals, households, and businesses. Combined with census data, these profiles help CFA quickly identify residents’ level of risk for a specific incident and provide them with the information they need to develop their fire and evacuation plans. “Essentially, the SAP system enables us to build deeper two-way relationships with the large number of Victorians we serve,” Foreshew says.

In selecting a CRM system, CFA examined more than 30 providers. According to Foreshew, SAP CRM had more out-of-the box functionality, which allowed CFA to get up and running quickly. CFA engaged a third-party provider to improve the skill set of its staff to effectively navigate the system and arrive at the desired outcome. The training, although costly, proved worth the investment, allowing CFA to go live with the Community Meetings CRM Project in October of 2009. “We wouldn’t have been able to meet the preparations for this year’s fire season without this system,” Foreshew says. CFA has already run numerous planning campaigns with the system and tripled the number of community meetings. Attendance has increased 150% compared to the previous year.

“There is no way we could have done this with our manual processes,” he adds. “We now have a much better way of interacting with the community, a community that is growing more accustomed to doing things online. We haven’t increased the number of people holding the meetings; we have just made the meetings more efficient.”

Forward thinking, forward moving

Obviously, community members aren’t getting on board just because CFA now runs SAP software, Foreshew says. “What we are demonstrating with the SAP system is that CFA is a progressive, forward-thinking, and forward-moving organization that is in step with the community – and not stuck in outdated methods of fire prevention,” he says. “We’re not just relying on ‘Captain Koala’ to go around and do school programs. It’s about looking for better and more innovative ways to help out, and the community recognizes that.”

“The nature of what we do doesn’t change,” Foreshew adds. “We still put out fires, rescue people, and even get pet cats down from trees. But we are constantly focused on improving how we do things to better meet the expectations of the community and volunteers we serve.”