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Using three dimensions to engage communities

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The Simtable is an engaging and interactive 3D simulator used by CFA and DELWP to demonstrate bushfire behaviour and suppression options. 

Using three dimensions to engage communities

Before the Simtable technology was available fire agencies relied on two-dimensional animations of fire spread shown on a computer screen to demonstrate bushfire scenarios. Burn tables have also been a popular way to explain fire behaviour to community members and for training purposes using real fire. 

However, burn table sessions are restricted to outdoor use (so are dependent on the weather) and they need a lot of imagination to relate a small fire on flat surfaces to real landscapes.

In comparison, a Simtable shows fire behaviour on three-dimensional landscapes that participants can relate to, and it can be set up anywhere, at any time of day. The Simtable can also be used for other scenarios such as flooding, smoke and traffic movement. 

Purchased in 2015 from the US, our Simtable is the only one of its kind in Victoria and took a few years to develop. CFA fire behaviour analysts worked with the US developers to program it for Australian fire behaviour models and fuels. The software uses the same models used in Victoria to predict bushfire spread when managing emergency response. 

The Simtable comes in three parts: a computer and projector on a stand, a camera and a portable sand pit which is placed on a table. It works by projecting an image of a landscape onto the sand.  

The image is contained in a window with controls and menus that the operator uses to run the bushfire. One of the main advantages of the Simtable is its level of interaction. Participants are invited to shape the sand by hand to match the landscape projection. Historical and potential weather and locations for a fire start are then discussed. 

The Simtable operator then sets all the controls using a mouse. The camera detects the spark or flame provided by the hand of the operator as it hovers over an agreed ignition point. The bushfire then grows in real time or it can be sped up, and weather conditions can be varied as the fire progresses. 

The simulated fire responds to topography and fuels, moving faster uphill, and is spread by spot fires ahead of the main fire. Suppression activities can be added to the scenario so that participants can see their impact. 

It has also been requested by community groups to generate discussions about risk and response. 

“The power of the Simtable to engage communities with their local risk and strategies to survive is incredible,” North West Region Service Deliver Coordinator Rohan Thornton said. “It’s the best bushfire engagement tool I have ever used.”

The Simtable is also an effective tool to train firefighters. It has been used in CFA planned burn training and by Forest Fire Management Victoria to prepare its firefighters for the fire season ahead.  

Simtable operator Mitch Emmett started out running sessions to help with community engagement in his role as vegetation management support officer for the North East region. 

“People loved it and through word of mouth it didn’t take long for the calls to come from across the state,” Mitch said.  

Project manager Terry Ouroumis said the demand already exceeded the availability of the machine and facilitators to operate it, and CFA wanted to expand the program so that more people can access it. 

For more information about the Simtable and its application email sim.table@cfa.vic.gov.au.

Photos: Owen Gooding