How tech helps government agency recruit for disaster response

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  • 2022
April 12, 2022

Government disaster response: rear view of 3 uniformed rescue workers

When high temperatures, prolonged drought, and lightning strikes ignited a huge swath of Australia’s wilderness in late 2019 to mid-2020, Australians stepped up in droves to assist with the rescue and cleanup efforts.

The New South Wales (NSW) Rural Fire Service (RFS), a government agency under the NSW State Public Sector, was inundated with inquiries and applications from people wanting to join the fight. But an outdated, paper-based approach to managing new recruits hamstrung the organization’s response.

In need of a better system

As the world’s largest volunteer fire service, RFS oversees deployment of more than 75,000 people to help with everything from clearing bush to evacuating people in harm’s way. Throughout the 2019-2020 fire season, RFS’s limited resources and legacy systems hampered the overwhelming scope of the task at hand.

“We had about 10,000 volunteer applications that season—double our normal load,” says RFS Chief Information Officer John Danson. The organization’s staff struggled under the weight of this increased volume.

Up to that point, all applications were completed by hand, on paper, and funneled through the network of local and regional teams until they reached RFS headquarters. Once at headquarters, the applications were painstakingly entered into a central database one at a time.

“We didn’t even really know how many applications might have gotten lost on the way to headquarters, since there was no central tracking system,” Danson says. “There was no intelligence, no workflow, no dashboarding.”

We had about 10,000 volunteer applications that season—double our normal load. John Danson, Chief Information Officer, NSW RSF


Gaining visibility and efficiency

Although RFS is larger than many public sector agencies in Australia, its DNA remains rooted in a community-based ethos and culture that made it difficult to implement wide-scale change.

“Our people are based in communities all over the state, with varying levels of expertise and access to technology,” Danson explains. “That bad fire season shone the light on our structures and processes, and the opportunity to improve technology and the experience for volunteers, staff, and members of the community wanting to join.”

At the outset of its transformation, RFS employed Deloitte to provide recommendations for technological upgrades, including bringing ServiceNow on board to connect multiple tasks, teams, and departments via digital workflows.

The first priority was to turn the paper-based application into a one-click undertaking that would seamlessly populate different fields (particularly name and other demographic info) across various databases. This would maintain data integrity and reduce duplication.

With ServiceNow Customer Service Management and App Engine, RFS can now see the status of every application, where it sits in the journey from “submitted” to “accepted” (something applicants can also gain visibility into), what actions still need to be taken, and so on.

The next challenge was to digitize the business processes that deliver support services across the organization—including everything from logging maintenance requests to ordering a mobile phone. The goal was to handle everything through a centralized, easy-to-use dashboard rather than “drowning in forms,” as Danson put it.

A key benefit of using a single platform to digitize these service offerings is the ability to integrate them across human resources, IT, engineering, logistics, finance, and procurement. This offers a simpler request process for end users.

Getting strike teams ready for action

The seamlessness will ultimately uplevel to the core functions RFS provides—the so-called “strike teams” that are formed to fight large fires. Previously, remote teams had to fill in Excel forms enumerating their specific requirements in responding to a disaster. These included factors such as:

  • Time needed for the response (two, three, or five days)

  • If volunteers would have to work day shifts, night shifts, or both

  • The number of personnel or vehicles needed

  • The specific date and time of the response

  • The status and approver of the strike team request

The central office would then scramble to fill these requirements, sending requests for people and materials to RFS’s nearly 2,000 individual brigades.

When you’ve got campaign fires—these multiple concurrent fires—you can lose track of things. ...Now it all goes into a common view with a neat queue so you can track where everything is. John Danson, Chief Information Officer, NSW RFS


Under the new blueprint, resources can be matched with requirements automatically, so brigades can find what they need right away. “It will be much faster and easier to form strike teams,” Danson explains.

“When you’ve got campaign fires—these multiple concurrent fires—you can lose track of things. How many requests did you put out? Who sent back their responses? Now it all goes into a common view with a neat queue so you can track where everything is.”

An invaluable partner

The scale of the task Danson’s team faced underscores the need for a genuine partner that can offer technical expertise and high-level advice on strategy and overall execution.

“I’ve used other technology vendors before, and you’d pay an equivalent price of the software and then need to go and find a separate implementation partner to advise on best practice implementation,” Danson notes.

“ServiceNow, on the other hand, was there to make sure that we got value from the software we bought from them. I had a ServiceNow person in the room virtually who was able to say, ‘We would recommend the design that’s been proposed to you. It’s in accordance with our architectural best practice, and it’s being done in a way that would be easy to support after going live.’ And all that was incredibly helpful.”

Find out more about how ServiceNow helps government agencies improve processes.

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