January 14, 2020 / 12:36 AM / 12 days ago

For sale: manager of Australian bushfires app

SYDNEY (Reuters) - The management of a smartphone app used by millions of Australians to get live bushfire updates may be sold as its developer restructures to cut debt, even as it looks to extend the app nationally, the company’s CEO said.

FILE PHOTO: A burning gum tree is felled to stop it from falling on a car in Corbago, as bushfires continue in New South Wales, Australia January 5, 2020. REUTERS/Tracey Nearmy/File Photo

As wildfires rage through eastern Australia, the New South Wales state fire service’s Fires Near Me smartphone app has become one of the country’s top ranked apps, downloaded by 1.6 million people, or 6% of the population, in November and December alone.

The current version of the app was developed by tech firm ARQ Group Ltd and is managed by a 55-person support team around the clock. ARQ has already replicated the system in smaller South Australia state, but CEO Tristan Sternson said the app is up for sale amid a company-wide restructure.

ARQ, which has a string of tech-related businesses, appointed Macquarie Group Ltd as an adviser in September following a fall in revenues.

“We have had quite a few interested parties with either (some) or all parts of the business, and we’re just trying to work out the right path forward,” said Sternson by phone.

ARQ, meanwhile, is pushing ahead with its goal of taking the product Australia-wide and Sternson said it has been approached by other states.

“If you cross from New South Wales to Victoria, you probably shouldn’t have to switch off one app and pick up the next one because you’re in Albury or Wodonga,” he said, referring to cities 8 km (5 miles) apart but in different states.

A spokeswoman for South Australia’s Fire and Emergency Services Commission, which launched its app in December, said it “welcomes the opportunity for a more consistent approach”.

Victoria state’s Emergency Management Victoria, which has an emergency app, was not immediately available for comment.

Australia’s devastating bushfire season has been fanned strong winds, high temperatures and three years of drought. Halfway into summer, fires have destroyed 10.3 million hectares (25.5 million acres), killed 28 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes.

Sternson, who had a family member lose a farm in the fires, said his support team risked exhaustion due to “the time it’s been going for”, particularly since some staff were personally affected.

“You can see out there how communities have come together and how different people are trying to support the (fire) fighting and the rebuild,” he said.

“This is our way of being able to support the service.”

Reporting by Byron Kaye; editing by Richard Pullin

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