On a dark, wet night in May 2015, a mother, her two young children and their grandmother found themselves in a dire situation when they accidentally drove into flood waters on a road in Logan, Queensland.
The car was washed off the road and all four miraculously escaped their sinking vehicle. They managed to cling to trees in the dark as the floodwaters raged around them, waiting more than an hour for rescue.
Following this harrowing ordeal, Logan City Council identified that it needed to develop a new way to prevent road users from inadvertently entering floodwaters.
“The crux of the problem is that it is almost impossible to see water over the road ahead at night, especially if there is no street lighting or the power is out,” explains Marty Wallace, Manager Road Construction & Maintenance at Logan City Council.
“There’s a public perception that most people who get into trouble have driven through floodwaters deliberately, but that’s not the reality. Most swift water rescues happen at night. The reality is, on a dark, wet night, headlights reflect off the water and there’s a high risk drivers won’t see the water at all..
“This young family was completely oblivious to the dangerous, fast-flowing water they drove into despite driving cautiously at the time.
Mr. Wallace says councils typically do their best to erect temporary warning signs when roads are flooded but the water often rises and falls rapidly at multiple sites, and it is not possible for council teams to be everywhere at once.
“Sometimes it’s not safe to send teams out to put up warning signs with lightning striking around them. During Cyclone Debbie last March we had 110 roads with water over them,” says Mr. Wallace. The issue here is not just cost and time but safety of staff too.
“We asked ourselves ‘what can we do about it?’,” states Mr. Wallace.
The answer was to create some sort of automatic warning system, one that could warn drivers when the road ahead is flooded.
The council sought a low cost technological solution that would not only help prevent similar tragedies from happening again, but could also be adapted and serve multiple functions in the future.
“Others, including the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads, have trialled a few flooded road warning systems, but none met the need for a simple, low-cost, reliable and sustainable solution that gives a very clear warning message, such as ‘ROAD FLOODED’, to drivers approaching dangerously flooded roads,” explains Mr. Wallace.
“Following initial conversations about what kind of message we needed to get across, we took that to council and they thought it might be better to use ‘ROAD FLOODED’ wording so it was very clear and unequivocal to the driver,” he says. “A lot of the flooding can be over quite quickly, so rather than saying the road is closed, having the message ‘ROAD FLOODED’ made more sense.”
The council put Mr. Wallace and his team onto Substation 33, a local not-for-profit social enterprise that was looking to get into product innovation.
“We engaged them to help produce a technical solution that could be upgraded and updated in the future, but also one that was cost effective,” says Mr. Wallace. “They helped develop and install our first model, which uses cables to connect the signs to a float switch only six months after the concept was first discussed.”
Substation 33 specialises in recycling e-waste and helping to train and rehabilitate disadvantaged people for entry (or re-entry) into the workforce. Part of its contribution to the overall system was to incorporate recycled components into the system, which includes a mix of off-the-shelf components and parts manufactured from electronic waste, including 3D printers and repurposed laptop batteries.
Logan City Council’s Flooded Road Smart Warning System (FRSWS), as it has now been dubbed, is now in its sixth iteration, which includes a radio control unit and specifically designed printed circuit boards.
“When the water goes over the road, it triggers the FRSWS and a radio unit sends a message to electronic signs 100 metres up the road on either side of the floodway,” says Mr. Wallace.
The solar-charged recycled batteries automatically power bright amber flashing words ‘ROAD FLOODED’ on the approach when the road ahead is flooded.
The FRSWS is mounted above permanent signs warning that the road is subject to flooding.
Additionally, each FRSWS contains its own SIM card. Once the flood alert is triggered, the unit will automatically update the council’s Disaster Dashboard website and send an SMS and email to the relevant council staff. In the future, this information will be made available in open data and could be used by car navigation systems to reroute traffic around flooded roads.
The beauty of the technology integrated into the FRSWS means the council can continue to upgrade and introduce new technology and capabilities into the system.
“We went through the first iteration of the system pretty quickly and we can see further developments that could happen with the likes of the Internet of Things and communication networks without the need for SIM cards,” explains Mr. Wallace.
“We could look at putting in cameras, capabilities to test water levels, and even put in functions to test water and air quality, which can help council with environmental data unrelated to flooding events.”
Another application for a similar system is a bushfire alert. “We have houses on ridges around Logan that are quite susceptible to bushfires. We could start looking at a system that would detect bushfires and send an SMS to those residents in vulnerable areas, as well as call the fire service, trigger internal fire alarms and turn on external sprinkler systems ,” adds Mr. Wallace.
The FRSWS has not only helped improve driver safety around flooded roads in Logan, but it has helped the council to implement new initiatives, including its own risk management strategy around flooded roadways.
Research for the project identified 278 locations around Logan where roads are known to be flood-prone. “Using that information, we created our own risk criteria, which measured a flood site on five criteria – depth, velocity, visibility, depth, entry slope and sight distance,” says Mr. Wallace. This information has assisted the council to prioritise where it placed its FRSWS units and provided valuable information on its own road network at the same time.
For the time being, the FRSWS is proving beneficial to Logan, particularly its rural road network users. “Our system could be modified to use satellite communication remote areas without mobile coverage.
City of Logan Councillor Phil Pidgeon is adamant the FRSWS has already paid dividends for the council in helping to prevent similar incidents to those that instigated the development of the system.
“The introduction of these systems has definitely saved lives. The issue is not just going into floodwaters but fast-moving waters – where a car can be washed away and sink rapidly,” says Cr. Pidgeon. “I’ve driven into floodwaters myself and definitely unintentionally. It’s a very scary experience and lucky for me, I was able to reverse pretty quickly.
“Logan is a very diverse city, and we’ve got a lot of great roads but also great waterways and floodplains, including the Logan River. We have to be very conscious of these areas when storms hit, and from historical experience we get to know where these areas are that can be a problem.”
Cyclone Debbie gave the system its first real test at the end of March this year, when more than 100 roads across Logan were flooded. Unlike previous events, no vehicles drove into the floodwaters at the sites where the signs had been installed.
“It was very timely that we got this system in place because Cyclone Debbie resulted in one of the biggest floods in Logan’s history,” states Cr. Pidgeon. “Because it was such a big flood the system went completely underwater at two sites, but that’s part of the learning curve for us. Even if we were to lose one but we were able to save one life at the same time the cost wouldn’t matter – no one can put a price on a human life.”
Cr. Pidgeon says community feedback to the FRSWS has been overwhelmingly positive. “We’ve still got to fine-tune some of the locations, which we’ve been working on with the community, but they’ve really embraced the system,” he says.
Its introduction also comes with a number of flow-on effects for the council. This includes reducing risks association to emergency services personnel who attend flood rescue scenarios, as well as council staff erecting signs during a storm, all of which help to free up council staff and resources for other uses.
“We’re very excited about it and I’m sure this will open the way for other technology trials in Logan as this goes forward,” adds Cr. Pidgeon.
It isn’t just the Logan community that is impressed with the FRSWS. The wider local government sector is praising the system too. The FRSWS won the 2017 National Award for Local Government in the Road Safety category. The awards recognise innovative and resourceful solutions implemented by local governments that make a difference in their communities.
“This is the first award we’ve received for the project and it shows that what we’re doing is being recognised, but we’re very excited just about the fact we’re able to save lives. We’ll be able to get a lot more of these systems up in due time,” he says.
Cr. Pidgeon says the whole process, from concept to realisation, has been a learning curve for the council, and one that has produced a successful outcome that will benefit Logan and its surrounding rural network for years to come.
“This started with a simple idea being put on the table, followed by some robust discussions. Luckily for us, it all came together and we didn’t give up on it and that’s why we were able to achieve this outcome. “If you believe in something, and give it a good go, it’ll happen – that’s what Australia’s built on.”