In 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.