Homegrown technology aids in fire fighting efforts

An Australian communications company has built a bush fire alert service that enables communities to quickly send simultaneous alerts to each other via phone, mobile, SMS and email when a bushfire occurs.

People in regional and rural Australia have long known that the government will most likely be unable to help them in the case of a fire. The traditional solution has been to set up a phone tree where it may take 50 minutes or more to call all the properties in an area, and that assumes that each property has someone in the house to take the call, leaving the last properties on the list in danger.

Skunkworks' Bush Fire Alert service asks communities to register on their site and pay $25 per property. Each property will provide a list of contact numbers-such as home, work, mobile and also an email address.

Once a community is registered, it receives a dial-in number. Anyone can dial that number when they become aware of a fire in the area and a message will be sent out to every number listed for the community. SMS messages and emails with attached voice messages are also sent.

Director of marketing, Bill Oborn, said when the trial for the service was launched late January in South Australia, the company sent out 1100 alerts by phone, SMS and email in under two minutes, "and that used about one per cent of our infrastructure capabilities."

Oborn said that although market research showed people were willing to pay $200 for such a service, Skunkworks decided to launch it for $25 in a bid to make it affordable for everyone.

Although the $25 price tag will help the company recover costs of sending calls to mobiles, the company has invested $1 million in the service without any external funding.

Skunkworks wrote its own software to run the service and will use its existing hosting and switching infrastructure.

There are 12 communities in SA and NSW registered for the service which is now available nationwide. The Adelaide Hills community used the service in the February bush fires which threatened 30 properties.

"Although the fire authority was able to turn up and put this fire out, the information never made it to the local ABC radio, (so most) property owners found out about this fire through our alert system," he said.

Skunkworks provides products and services to telecommunication carriers and governments in Australia, UK and the US, including Vodafone, OneTel and Primus.

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