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Victorian State Emergency Services Web Project

Case Study

State Emergency Service Victoria (VICSES), a volunteer based organisation that responds to emergencies and works to ensure the safety of communities around Victoria, is the lead agency for responding to floods, storms and earthquakes in the state.  It also operates the largest road rescue network in Australia.

The organisation works closely with other emergency services including the Victoria Police and provides support to municipal councils when planning and auditing emergency management plans.  These services are provided by a network of 5,500 volunteers who maintain the service 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  The organisation’s website ( acts as a central information portal for the residents of Victoria in the event of an emergency.

The challenge faced by VICSES is that its website does not receive a regular flow of internet traffic and is only accessed by large numbers of people when emergencies occur.  The number of visitors can go from very few to many thousands in a matter of minutes if an incident occurs.  The other issue faced by VICSES was that it was hosting its own site in Victoria.  In the event of a major disaster such as an earthquake or Tsunami the chances of its data being irretrievable were high.

In February 2011 VICSES began looking for a new external hosting provider for its website and a new content management system to keep its site up to date and always available.  Hostworks and PretaWeb, a developer of Plone open source content management solutions, provided a joint proposal to VICSES addressing all its needs and ensuring that the necessary requirements were met.  A key factor in the decision to work with Hostworks was that its data centres were located in Adelaide and Sydney providing back up in two out-of-state, geographically-separated locations.

Andrew Gissing, director emergency management planning and communication, Victoria SES, said “If an earthquake was to hit Victoria tomorrow we could potentially be looking at up to 80,000 walking wounded within 60 seconds and they would all need information on where to go.  The VICSES website is essential when it comes to sharing information with large numbers of people simultaneously.  With new data devices, like 3G phones, even if calls and texts go down it is still often possible to access data on the device so ensuring the data is live and accessible at all times is key.”

“We run three separate sites at VICSES, an intranet for sharing content internally, an extranet that lets our network of 5,500 volunteers quickly access critical information and the public website that provides crucial information for Victoria’s residents if an emergency situation arises.  The new systems from Hostworks and PretaWeb are fully integrated, which means we are now able to easily manage our online content and ensure it is always accessible to the public, and our volunteers.”

Paul Mullen, managing director, Hostworks said, “The work that VICSES do is crucial to the state of Victoria and ensuring that its website stays live and functioning no matter what is happening and how many people need to access it is key.  By working with Hostworks it now has a robust site and can be assured that its data is safely stored outside of the state, in two separate locations.  By working with PretaWeb we have been able to combine our hosting expertise with its open source CMS system to provide a complete solution that meets the needs of VICSES and ensures they can provide the best service possible to the residents of Victoria.”

Virginia Choy, Business Development Manager, PretaWeb said, “The open source content management system Plone was essential to ensuring the success of this project. Plone works equally well to create both public websites, extranets and intranets, something not many CMS's are capable of. Plone's multi-site capabilities allowed the VIC SES to get all their current and future needs delivered in one redundant scalable platform, greatly increasing their capabilities with the project costs. Plone has the best security record of any open source CMS protecting the SES from hacking. Plone's outstanding built-in cache management capabilities work with HostWorks CDN enabling the VIC SES site to handle such high loads.

Plone is open source, meaning costs were lower and the VIC SES had access to a world-wide eco-system of plugins and support from the Plone Community. Plone's unique Diazo theming system enables the VIC SES to have complete control over the site design allowing them to develop exactly the site they wanted “Our new partnership with Hostworks has let us combine our CMS expertise with its hosting service, meaning that VICSES can now easily manage and update its online content and due to the fact that our solution is based on open source technology they do not need to worry about licencing fees going forward.  We also offer 24/7 support which is essential for an organisation like VICSES, if a disaster strikes it might not be in office hours.”

The new system went live on 28 March 2012. The hosting and CMS solution successfully under went load testing for the websites and data centre to handle a worst case disaster scenario. The situation tested a major earthquake hitting the CBD of Melbourne. The VIC SES predicted this would result in  800,000 people accessing the website for emergency information in 15minutes ( this is a peak session rate of 2000 sessions per second).