20 November 2006

Friday and Saturday, 9pm–1am, are the most common days and times for hoax fire calls, according to a UQ study modelling the State’s urban fires, the first of its kind in Australia.

Co-researchers Dr Jonathan Corcoran and Dr Prem Chhetri, both Research Fellows with the UQ Social Research Centre, are collaborating with the Queensland Fire and Rescue Service (QFRS) to geographically model urban fires using latest Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technologies.

Funded by a UQ First Link grant and Australian Research Council Research Network for Spatially Integrated Social Science seed funding, the first phase of the study focuses on household, vehicle, secondary (grassland and rubbish) fires and malicious false alarms (hoax calls).

Geographical aspects of urban fires including fire intensity mapping are being investigated and integrated with the socio-economic characteristics of neighbourhoods across the South-East Queensland region. The relationships of fires with the characteristics and age of dwelling structures and Census socio-economic data including unemployment and literacy levels are also being explored.

“Our findings indicate that fire is not a random phenomenon, rather it occurs in areas of higher risk factors,” Dr Corcoran said.

“Half of all secondary fire incidents affect 20 percent of the population while half of all vehicle fires affect 28 percent of the population. Further to this, 43 percent of secondary fire incidents occur in areas of low socio-economic status.”

Dr Corcoran said while there had been a lot of research on the geographical aspects of wildfires, little was known about the contributing factors to urban fires.

The researchers have access to an extensive QFRS database of fire incidents, forming the basis for computer models to be constructed at UQ. In return, QFRS personnel are provided with monthly briefings on trends, guiding future planning, policy and education programs.

“To strategically plan fire-fighting infrastructure such as fire stations, it’s important for planners to evaluate the nature, characteristics and distribution of fires. Mapping geographical variability may identify ‘hot spot’ areas that can be targeted more strategically with limited financial resources,” Dr Corcoran said.

QFRS Manager Community Education, Denis Stunden, recently confirmed the usefulness of the research partnership with UQ.

“The work and studies being undertaken with The University of Queensland will allow us to further refine our safety campaigns and target at-risk groups with community safety messages,” Mr Stunden said.

The study’s hoax call findings are the result of a 10-month-long analysis of malicious false alarms received by the QFRS over the past seven years.

“Hoax calls cost the community thousands of dollars each year in rescue resources being unnecessarily deployed and the potential loss of property and life this may cause,” Dr Corcoran said.

“As an indication, QFRS urban stations responded to 1493 malicious or mischievous false alarms in 2004 alone.”

The study first calculated an average hoax call rate per day along with the percentage of deviation from that average.

The research found very little variation in calls by month but that Friday and Saturday were the most common days for hoax calls at almost 40 percent above the mean while the most common time was between 9pm and 1am (up to 180 percent above the mean).

The quietest days for hoax calls were Tuesdays and Wednesdays while the quietest hours through the weekdays were between 1am and 11.30am.

The researchers recently applied for an ARC Linkage grant to investigate the impact of factors such as social deprivation, cold weather, rainfall, and public holidays on the incidence of urban residential fires.

The QFRS has already committed $60,000 over a three-year period to the project if the grant application is successful.

Media inquiries: Dr Corcoran (3365 6523), Shirley Glaister at UQ Communications (3365 2339) or Andrew Berkman from QFRS (3247 8085).