Weather stations deliver fireground intel

It's been ten years since Everton member Ian Murray took on the job of manning the Wangaratta North portable weather station - one of five such stations strategically placed around the state which can be deployed to locations near 'going' fires to deliver accurate weather readings.

Weather information from the stations is used to plan how firefighters will attack a fire and contributes to firefighter safety.

The Portable Automatic Weather Stations (PAWS) - housed together with specialist equpiment on traliers - have a home with fire brigades in Hazelwood North, Wangaratta North and Horsham. Two stations have also been placed with the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) at Altona.

A PAWS trailer comprises two independent weather stations, a solar-powered tripod and battery with a computer system to record temperature, humidity, dew point and rainfall, an aerial to record wind speed and direction and an iridium phone which transmits all the data to the BoM. The trailers were set up as the result of a Bureau of Meteorology initiative 10 years ago.

Ian Murray has been a CFA member for almost 40 years, the last 10 at Everton Fire Brigade. He is one of the four original - and still current - members manning the North East PAWS trailer, usually stationed at Wangaratta North Fire Station. The others are Michael O’Sullivan from Tarrawingee brigade, Ken Still from Wangaratta brigade and Phil McPherson from South Wangaratta brigade.

Ian has been a welder, a farmer and a maintenance man so he knows how to systematically go about a technical job – a vital skill when faced with multiple leads that must be plugged in according to a colour-coded system.

“You have to be computer savvy too,” he adds.

“When the opportunity to host a PAWS unit came up, CFA was looking for retired people like us in our 60s who didn’t necessarily want to go out on the fire truck anymore. Some younger mostly self-employed members have joined us since then.”

Initial training to man the PAWS trailer was conducted by BoM Senior Meteorologist Kevin Parkyn who also conducts annual assessments involving assembly, erection of the aerial, fault finding, advising the BoM of the location and disassembly.  The members also regularly check that the unit is ‘up to scratch’ although full maintenance is carried out in Melbourne by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

When it comes to deployment, a crew of two is tasked by the operations manager, then reports to the incident controller from their assigned location. Ideally this is on a cleared hilltop with 30 metres clear around the mast, not under trees or in a sheltered area. From arrival through full assembly to first transmission via iridium phone back to the BoM takes approximately one and a half hours. The PAWS might then be left in place for days at a time and monitored remotely.

“We have to work out where it’s best to set up the equipment,” says Ian. “We manage it so we won’t be impacted by fire even after a wind change. If we set it up to the north west of a fire, for example, we’re unlikely in this part of the world to have a south easterly wind.”

Deployment requires extensive communications because all incident managers need to know that the PAWS and crew are on the fireground although not too close to the fire. Verbal communication is usually conducted via trunking radio.

“We deployed about two hours from Corryong one summer – no phone or radio reception – set up, checked it, then headed back to town,” continues Ian. “Once we got back we found the signal wasn’t getting through after all so we turned around and drove back out again. It can be arduous like that. Fortunately some CFA technicians came past and they trunked it back for us.

“We deployed to Kerang to monitor wind direction during a locust plague so they could determine where the plague was likely to move to. We’ve been to a chemical leak in Wangaratta. In 2013 we went by helicopter to Mt Hotham to monitor conditions when fires were burning all around.

“We deployed helium weather balloons until last year, tracking them with a theodolite which gives you readings off north and off elevation so you can work out wind speed and direction at different altitudes. They’re not needed now – technology has moved on.

“We tend to be deployed during major fires in hilly country. There are already automatic weather stations on the flat. Think of the recent Lake Rowan fire – it was a flat fire with not much wind change so we weren’t deployed.

“Actually we haven’t been deployed at all so far this summer.”

The BoM’s Kevin is proud of the work done by the crew.

“Weather intelligence from the fireground improves situational awareness and increases firefighter safety,” says Kevin. “PAWS units are an ideal way of getting regular, consistent and high quality weather readings to everyone involved in the firefight. When PAWS are required, we know we can rely on Ian and the team around Wangaratta North brigade.”

Author: CFA Media