Published: Everard Himmelreich, Warnambool Standard, 10 March 2010

FOUR fire towers in the south west are bristling with three different fire detection cameras as part of trial to determine whether fire-spotting systems can be improved.

The Mount Porndon tower, east of Camperdown, the Crowes tower near Lavers Hill and the Peters Hill and Mount Cowley towers near Lorne have each been equipped with FireWatch, EYEfi SPARC and ForestWatch detection systems.

The trial is being monitored and evaluated by the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre (CR(-‘). Bushfire CRC research director Richard Thornton
said the local knowledge of fire-spotters was irreplaceable and there was no plan to replace them with cameras or any other technology.

He said the aim of the trial was to determine the ability of the three systems to detect fires early, exclude false alarms and integrate into existing fire services and processes, including the ability to give warnings to the community.

Dr Thornton said the cameras could be of great benefit to fire managers but more knowledge of their strengths and limitations was needed before they were adopted on a broader scale.

“We will be looking at how accurately and quickly they can detect when a fire starts and then compare this with other methods such as fire towers, spotter planes and satellites, and reports made by the public on the ground,” Dr Thornton said.

“We will look at whether the technology adds anything to what we have got.”

He said there had been no commitment to buy any of the systems after the trial.

The FireWatch Australia system is founded on aerospace technology developed for the NASA Mars Pathfinder mission and incorporates an optical sensor, which boasts near-infrared sensing capabilities.

The enhanced spectral sensitivity permits detection across a wide range of visible light wavelength during both day and night- far superior to that of the human eye.

Each sensor rotates through 360 degrees every four to eight minutes, detecting smoke at distances of up to 40 kilometres away. Once smoke or fire is detected, an alarm with a corresponding image is transmitted to a control room at Deakin University’s Burwood campus where the image is rapidly assessed and the information disseminated to the relevant fire agencies, allowing them to commence their fire suppression activities.

Fire Watch uses embedded GPS mapping data to pinpoint the location of the fire with extreme accuracy.

FireWatch Australia managing director David Goodrich said the technology had been used for the past eight years in Germany and had reduced the area of forest burnt by more than 90 per cent. The EYEfi SPARC system was developed in Victoria and had already been used to monitor the Black Saturday fires last year.

It is a video camera-based system complemented by a Geographic Information System that allows the position of fires to be determined accurately.

The ForestWatch system was developed in South Africa and is another 24-hour video surveillance system that also provides precise locations of
fire outbreaks.

The trial will run until April or May this year.