The status of InciWeb

InciWebIn 2008 InciWeb, the site to which the public is directed to obtain critical information about ongoing wildfires, was inoperable at times. During a couple of the outages we wrote “When the need for it is the greatest, it is most likely to fail”, and, “The site that is supposed to provide information about current wildland fires is least dependable when it is most needed.” At least some of the problems were due to the U.S. Department of Agriculture network and servers that were hosting the site.

In recent years, however, the system has been much more dependable. We have rarely had trouble accessing the site — until the last couple of weeks, when the performance has been erratic. Sometimes the pages load immediately, and maybe a few seconds later it might take half a minute for a page to appear.

On April 20 when the Fawnskin Fire was burning on the San Bernardino National Forest in southern California, the Forest sent this via Twitter:

San Bernardino NF, @SanBernardinoNF

Fawnskin Fire – inciweb website is down – all fire info will be handled via this twitter feed and recorded msg at 909 383 5688

In February some people in the U.S. Forest Service were working on “reengineering” the site, some of which is still going on. When we inquired yesterday about the status of InciWeb after the San Bernardino NF had the problem, Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson in the U.S. Forest Service’ Boise office, was kind enough to reply to us on a Sunday, saying:

It appears that the current problem isn’t with the inciweb application itself but with the new Ness Application Portal through which you now log in to inciweb to enter and update incident information. The portal was instituted recently to enhance the security of fire and aviation management IT applications. The fire and aviation management IT staff is working to correct the issues as we speak.

Some people don’t like InciWeb, but I think it is an excellent concept that should be maintained and improved to the point where it is dependable and user friendly for both the public and those who input information about fires and other incidents. The servers and the network hosting the site need to be robust enough that it will continue to work when it is most needed — that is, when there are several large fires going on at the same time that affect huge numbers of people. If we can’t depend on it to work when it is most needed, then it is a failure. Remember, this site is for providing information about ongoing emergencies. Your average IT person or web designer might have trouble understanding this.

Once upon a time I was talking with Greg Greenhoe, a former Area Commander and Planning Section Chief, about the best method to determine how many copies should be made of an Incident Action Plan at a large incident. His secret was to count the names of everyone who you think needs or wants a copy, then double it and add 10. It’s a good rule of thumb. The same concept should be employed by those designing a network to host InciWeb. Estimate how many people you think will attempt to access the site at the same time during peak periods while numerous large fires are burning, then double that figure and add… what, 10 thousand?

If people don’t know where to find fire information, then posting it somewhere serves little purpose. When agencies choose to place their incident information on Twitter, Facebook, Google Docs, or Flickr rather than InciWeb, it creates a confusing mess. If InciWeb is dependable and user friendly for everyone involved, it stands a better chance of success and will be more likely to serve the needs of the intended users.

One more thing…. the URL, the web address, of InciWeb will be changing. The new address, which works now, is http://inciweb.nwcg.gov/ The old address, http://inciweb.org, is still functional but will be going away eventually. So you might as well update your bookmarks or favorites now.

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About Bill Gabbert

Wildland fire has been a major part of Bill Gabbert’s life for several decades. After growing up in the south, he migrated to southern California where he lived for 20 years, working as a wildland firefighter. Later he took his affinity for firefighting to Indiana and eventually the Black Hills of South Dakota where he was the Fire Management Officer for a group of seven national parks. Today he is the creator and owner of WildfireToday.com and Sagacity Wildfire Services and serves as an expert witness in wildland fire. If you are interested in wildland fire, welcome… grab a cup of coffee and put your feet up. Google+

5 thoughts on “The status of InciWeb

  1. Spent a good hour today trying to get my WIMS account to work through the new NAP environment which is the portal for ROSS, Inciweb admin and WIMS. Seems a bit stupid as the WIMS data is all semi-public domain information that would be fully releasable through a FOIA request.

    I can see Inciweb becoming more and more unstable everytime they “fix” it…

  2. My complaint with InciWeb is that it does not seem to be updated much on weekends. I get an impression of people going home at 5 p.m. on Friday whether a fire is raging or not.

  3. I, too, like the idea of a single central source of information directed toward the public. But it has to be totally dependable, as you have just pointed out. That’s the main reason that fireimaging.com, the site that I contribute to, is hosted on a large commercial ISP that has no problem with sudden jumps in traffic. During large fires in southern California, such as the Cedar Fire or the Esperanza Fire, website daily traffic jumped 10- to 100-fold as the affected public, Incident Command personnel, and the media flocked to the site for the latest thermal maps of the fire area.
    BTW, we just upgraded our site’s hardware and software, and improved security, too. The site was down for less than 2 days total, and is now noticeably faster.

    • Curious about fireimaging.com the site the gentleman referenced, I went to look at it and the most recent fire on the home page was 14 August 2012 …. so it’s not so well kept up.

      Interestingly enough, the new inciweb url loaded almost instantly – at least today.

  4. I am a private citizen and live within the boundaries of the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area (LCNRA) where wildfire-events are becomming too common. It is important to my family and neighbors that there be no turf-wars over which website best serves ALL users.

    An effective website needs to be highly reliable when it needs to be accessed. Thank you for everyone’s best efforts !

    Dick Bingham

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