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Fired Up for Action

Fired Up for Action

The Country Fire Authority of Victoria recently embarked on a four-year journey to improve the quality of its data and enhance its processes — a strategy that promises to reinvigorate the CFA at a time when its services have never been more critical.

Those who have been there and survived say the centre of a fire is a frightening place. Fire moves fast. It heats a room to 200 degrees Celsius in minutes. It is pitch black — not bright — and it produces poisonous gases that can make breathing or escape near impossible. It kills about 130 Australians every year and is very much not the usual enemy of an information technology manager.

So while most IT executives struggle to ensure their systems speak the same language as those of major customers or suppliers, for efficiency and profit, the imperatives at the Country Fire Authority (CFA) of Victoria have more to do with life and death. The CFA has started a four-year journey to develop and implement a new information management strategy to improve the quality of its data and enhance its management and operational processes. It is a strategy that will transform how the organisation functions at a time its services have never been more vital.

The cornerstone of this metamorphosis is how the CFA, as an agency of the Victorian state government, will leverage existing IT investments made by other state government bodies. This multi-departmental approach is one in which the man charged with its success has a passionate belief. CFA business manager IT Strategy Hunter Smith says his role is to address the authority’s desire “to bring the various wishes and dreams of people and projects together” into a single framework — one where technology supports the authority rather than drives its business. It is a strategy that will give taxpayers more bang for their buck by taking advantage of “whole-of-government” initiatives and prior IT investment. From old expenditure new projects will grow.

Eight Roads to Success

Late last year the CFA board approved an information management strategy that comprises eight key projects. It is supported by what the CFA calls a “future systems framework”. The eight projects include a system of pertinent information about buildings and locations (for example, the existence of dangerous goods in industrial areas); an emergency management system; business systems (finance, asset management, human resources); an interactive community portal; an interactive staff and volunteer portal; a B2B exchange for communications with local government authorities, utilities and other state agencies; a performance management system for reporting internally and to the CFA’s masters in government; and a multimedia corporate database. These projects will be implemented progressively, with the systems framework ensuring all investments align with the CFA’s business and operational goals.

Smith says each of the eight projects demands a bulletproof business case: one that is cost-effective and consistent with the CFA’s overall information management strategy. “I absolutely must show that I’ve looked at all the options to get the organisation the best value for money,” Smith says. “The progress of the program can be monitored by making sure the projects are delivering business outcomes as opposed to delivering just the technology. Increasingly, I’m being asked to clarify how the new systems will assist operational activities like fighting fires. There’s no point developing systems unless they produce improvements to your core purpose. When you think about the business we’re in, this isn’t nice-to-do back-office stuff. It is all directed towards supporting the safety of our people and the safety of the community, so CFA takes it very seriously.”

And the strategy is highly cost-efficient. The initial estimate for the CFA information management strategy was between $10 and $14.5 million over four years, plus an additional $2 million in operating costs. However, when the strategy was developed it did not include the push towards leveraged investments. If the estimates were revised today, says Smith, they would fall “by a couple of million”.

The CFA now plans to spend substantially less than the original budget through its multi-organisational approach.

“When I put up a business case it must show that we’ve looked at organisations with which we jointly respond to incidents to see whether we can access their IT investment,” Smith says. “If we’re sharing systems we start to use the same language, and that can help in the management of incidents. This, and the potential cost savings, makes the additional challenge and complexities of multi-agency or whole-of-government projects worthwhile.”

An example is the CFA’s frugal deployment of SAP software for some of its business processes. Ministerial approval was gained in 2001 for the CFA to buy additional SAP licences from its metropolitan fire brigade cousins. The CFA implementation went live in July last year with all the SAP finance modules included for about half the usual cost.

“I’ve had feedback from people in the industry who can’t believe we put in SAP finance for that amount — it’s unheard of,” says Smith. “We took the configuration of another organisation with which we had similarities, built on it and saved a lot of money.”

The CFA is taking a similar approach for its asset management through the Department of Justice, as part of a multi-agency project known as GIMS (Government Infrastructure Management System). The Victoria Police is currently piloting this application and the CFA plans to roll it out from May this year. For its emergency management, the CFA has also just finished an evaluation of a system developed by the Department of Natural Resources and Environment. The CFA is now reviewing its incumbent systems — developed in-house and adopted by other emergency services in Australia — to compare their potential for improved integration and expanded functionality.

“While we have an over-arching strategy for CFA, we’ll continue to link into existing investments within government to get the best deal,” Smith says. “It is easier said than done and it involves a lot of negotiation and additional project management, but there are big positives.”

Maintaining the Lead

Victoria’s CFA is one of the world’s largest volunteer emergency services. As a result of serious fires across Victoria in 1939 in which 71 people were killed and more than 650 homes destroyed (Black Friday), a Royal Commission recommended a single firefighting organisation for country Victoria. The CFA began operations in April 1945. Yet “Country Fire Authority” is something of a misnomer in that it covers much of outer Melbourne, growth centres such as Frankston, Dandenong, Cranbourne, Melton and Werribee, and all of the major cities and towns in rural Victoria, such as Ballarat, Geelong and Bendigo — areas of major urban and industrial development. Today, there are about 2.5 million people, 980,000 homes and 150,000 square kilometres of land under CFA protection.

An eclectic organisation comprised of firefighters, road accident and forest industry response teams, planes and helicopters, the CFA has 1228 brigades, more than 2000 vehicles, 405 career fire fighters, 720 other staff and more than 58,000 volunteers. In 2001–2002 it responded to about 59,000 incidents across Victoria under demanding service delivery standards that require response to be as quick as eight minutes 90 per cent of the time.

The CFA is also regarded as something of a leader in the use of technology to support emergency activities. Its operational computer system — designed in-house — won international recognition when short-listed for the Smithsonian Computerworld Award in 1996. This is the technology industry’s most prestigious awards program, recognising innovative uses of IT that benefit society.

The CFA’s other information, technology and equipment activities include the design, development, delivery and maintenance of a wide range of technology-based services and equipment: trailer-mounted firefighting units, fire pumper and tanker trucks, vehicles able to access multi-storey buildings, encapsulated gas suits and one of the largest two-way radio communications networks in the world. All these assets generate enormous management needs.

Also, the CFA has a decentralised computing environment designed to complement its decentralised organisational structure. At present, the IT infrastructure comprises a central LAN at head office and sub-system LANs operating at the 20 CFA regional offices. All LANs are connected through Telstra’s AustPac Public Network. The installation, support and maintenance of such communications and IT equipment is determined by service level agreements (SLAs) between the CFA’s technical support functions and its key business users.

When the CFA board approved the information management strategy in November 2001 it wanted to cover all the organisation’s systems requirements. This extensive plan was derived from a strategy developed 12 months earlier that focused only on business systems, office software and some Web development. Smith soon realised this original plan was not ambitious enough. For an emergency service, it did not make sense to look at back-office systems first.

A Multi-agency Approach

Smith acknowledges that the CFA’s new information management strategy has become something of a Holy Grail. A CPA by background, Smith was a management accountant with the CFA for five years, dabbling in IT. He has managed a number of IT projects before, but nothing of this magnitude. The CFA’s manager of IT — the organisation’s technical guru — keeps Smith out of IT trouble.

However, having someone from a business perspective who is already known within the organisation at a senior level has, in such “fiscally challenged times” as Smith puts it, given IT at the CFA a stronger chance of recognition and approval. It has also been vital in securing agreements with other government agencies. But while the CFA has already shown it can save time and money by leveraging the investments of others, there are drawbacks.

“On the negative side,” says Smith, “we have to be flexible with our own implementation program because of the need to work with other organisations. Even as an equal participant we still have to negotiate the timing of projects and be conscious of people outside CFA. You can also be limited in what configuration is available, particularly if you want the same arrangement across multiple organisations . “And it’s not like the normal vendor–customer relationship. Usually, as soon as you say it’s a whole-of-government or multi-agency initiative, there are people who tend to automatically be negative. They think the project will take forever, costs will blow out or maybe it will never happen. We haven’t found that to be the case so far. Over the last year emergency services have started to talk to each other more about sharing resources and I think the future is looking positive in this regard.”

One might think that leveraging major investments made by other government departments or agencies — while great news for buyers — is a tragedy for vendors. Smith sees it differently. He says there are advantages for vendors. “Once it got out that the CFA had this major strategy involving many systems, I feel we’ve had half the vendors in Australia calling in the last 18 months,” he says. “When vendors have understood the logic of us working with other agencies within government they’ve been accepting. With a whole-of-government or multi-agency approach a vendor can contact a number of organisations at once, which may mean less specifications to review and fewer tender processes. I don’t believe that any vendor enjoys the tender process. For the SAP finance system project, for example, our metropolitan fire brigade cousins had already been through the tender process, which meant that the CFA avoided this delay and cost and the vendors got more business. Vendors have been positive because we’ve simplified the process.”

CRM Nirvana

Providing the right information to the right people at the right time for the right reasons is what the devotees of customer relationship management call nirvana. For the CFA, this scenario is critical. It is an organisation that needs to know everything possible about its equipment, its people and their skills, where they are and what they are up against. During an incident response, commanders need to provide emergency personnel with information about operating procedures. Since its inception, 60 CFA firefighters have been killed in the line of duty. On average, there is a serious injury to a CFA member every day of the working week — one of the main reasons, says Smith, that his team feels a higher responsibility to its cause.

“We had to improve some of our business systems first, but now that we’ve started looking at our operational and community safety systems and what is possible with them, there’s more emotion to get things done,” he says.

“It is easy to understand that by providing better information and processes to people out there in the risk environment we can potentially save lives and property. Technology can have that sort of impact. Even in a built-up environment — whether it’s a house or an industrial building — you should be able to respond and know if you’ll be facing dangerous goods or if the location has an evacuation plan. Logic tells you that if you’re fighting a raging fire you’d like to know everything possible about its location. But at the moment, because our systems aren’t fully integrated, we can’t provide all the information we would like to people in the field.”

So while the CFA’s business systems could be supplied by many potential vendors — and perhaps even outsourced — its emergency management and locality information systems are clearly mission critical. They will remain under direct CFA control. And like any IT manager, Smith recognises the importance of keeping the authority’s feet planted on terra firma. This means an important part of his role is to manage expectations.

“We can’t have people expecting everything in this four-year plan to materialise quickly,” he says. “For each new system, people need to be clear that they will not get everything they dreamed of in year one. This is sometimes a difficult story to tell. Even with the best endeavours it doesn’t always result in everyone having the same expectations. What I learned from the SAP finance system project was to first be clear about expectations with the board, the CEO and the senior executives and involve a dedicated resource for communications and change management. There is a potential pitfall here that has something to do with the mystique that technology builds around itself, particularly in a world where people can easily get PDAs or broadband Web access for personal use. One of our issues is dealing with what is available for public consumption versus what we can afford on an organisational level.”

Smith says another potential pain point for the CFA’s information management strategy is that the CFA has developed many systems in-house. He does not expect all of these developments to disappear but some will, creating the potential for disappointment amongst the people who were involved in building and maintaining those systems.

But Smith knows the CFA is comprised of professionals who appreciate that the authority’s goal is not about finding a better way of doing what it is doing now. Rather, they understand that this ambitious information management strategy will transform the way the CFA conducts its vital business of protecting the lives and properties of millions of Australians against a demon adversary that has no respect for technology.

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