Burned brush on a hillside, after a wildfire destroyed all the vegetation.

+ Despite being one of the most bushfire-prone continents in the world, Australia has no national body that collects and analyses data about fires.

The recent devastating bushfires in Tasmania show that Australia urgently needs to understand more about fires and how people behave in these emergencies. To do this, we need better data.

Data is important because it enables us to act based on evidence. We can invest in measures that make our environment safer and we can be sure that we aren’t wasting communities’ money on things that won’t help.

Surprisingly, for one of the most bushfire-prone continents in the world, Australia has no national body that collects and analyses data about fires. Other countries like the UK and US collect this data and use it to inform design and policy. But in Australia the work of the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre is excellent but limited by funding for data analysis and restricted to bushfires.

We need data on all sorts of fires – those in cities, buildings and infrastructure as well as wildfires. We also need this information on a national basis, like the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) in the US.

How often do fires start in particular conditions? How quickly do they grow? What impact do they have on communities? How do people behave in the event of fire?

Armed with data that answers these sorts of questions, designers, engineers, researchers, policymakers, regulators and technologists can create a safer environment. We could create more effective building codes, covering existing and new builds, that would result in safer communities.

Crucially, we could factor in how people really behave in fire emergencies. For example, Australia currently has a policy called ‘stay or go’: either stay in a safe place throughout the fire or go to safety as soon as you can. But the limited evidence available indicates that a lot of people stay until the fire is close and then – when it’s too late – they try in vain to leave.

It seems people are simply not prepared for fires. Amazingly, despite tragedies such as Black Saturday, recent surveys suggest just one third of people in fire-prone areas have proper emergency preparedness plans for bushfires.

Data can help us give strong and accurate messages about what to do in an emergency. We need to be as prepared for fires as Japan is for earthquakes, and collecting data is the first essential step towards this.

With better data, we can also design more resilient infrastructure and target investment at areas that need the most protection. For example, last year a relatively small fire in the regional telephone exchange at Warrnambool took down emergency calls, mobiles, landlines and the internet. Around 60,000 mobile and landlines were affected and the community was paralysed.

Without better access to data, we cannot properly protect communities from the impact of fire. The Fire Protection Association of Australia is working hard to promote the idea of a national body for fire data. For all our sakes, I hope we can find a way forward and get access to the data we need.