Shawna Legarza on the CBS Evening News

Shawna Legarza, a former Hotshot who is now the Director of Fire and Aviation for the U.S. Forest Service’s California Region was interviewed for the CBS evening News.

The subject came up of tracking the location of firefighters. We have written often about what we call the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety, a system that could track in real time the location of firefighters on the ground AND the location of the fire, all displayed on one screen — anything from a cell phone or seven-inch tablet to a laptop computer at the Incident Command post. This data should be available in real time to ground and aviation personnel on fires, as well as key supervisors and decision makers in the Operations and Planning Sections. Knowing the positions of personnel relative to the fire would be a massive step in improved situational awareness and could reduce the number of firefighters killed on fires. This information could have saved 24 lives in recent years — 19 on the Yarnell Hill Fire and 5 on the Esperanza Fire. In both cases the firefighters and their supervisors did not know where the firefighters were relative to the location of the fire.

The technology is available right now. The military has been using it for years. Our leaders in wildfire suppression need to make the decision to get it done.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills.

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19 thoughts on “Shawna Legarza on the CBS Evening News”

  1. But, Bill, whose job would it be to sit at a computer screen and track the crews and how would we determine that they are somewhere that they should not be if we are some distance away from them, focused on a laptop/tablet, and cannot see, firsthand, the conditions that they see? Do you want the Division leader to take this task on? He is the guy/gal who is already busy trying to most effectively deploy resources, pushing to get the crews under his span of control the resources that they need, keep his own situational awareness up, communicate with Branch or Ops to keep them informed, etc.

    When a fire gets a bit chaotic like the YHF or Esperanza, that is exactly the time that you (Bill) seem to want someone monitoring this little computer screen on which the hotshots are tracked, yet that is exactly the time that the overhead is *least* able (and capable, quite frankly) to do it.

    So, with all due respect, Bill, as you envision it, whose job is it going to be to keep eyes on the computer screen to track the gps or “holy grail” devices that the crew members are wearing? Perhaps you are completely on the money with your idea, but I’d like to know more about how you see it working out in practice……. Thank you.

    1. All good questions. It could be anyone.

      –A Division Supervisor checks the real time location of the fire and the fire behavior before she sends a crew to a specific location. She might check it every 30 to 60 minutes to update her situational awareness. If they are some distance away from a critical, developing situation, and can’t see it, at least being able to glance down at a screen every now and then to see where the fire is and where her people are is better than having no detailed information about real time intelligence.
      –If the Division Supervisor sees a flare up some distance away, they could check to see exactly where it is and where all of the firefighters are at that time.
      –One person, perhaps a Safety Officer, could be anywhere on the fire, even at the Incident Command Post, in charge of doing nothing but ensuring that everyone is in a safe place relative to the location of the fire. That person could also be in frequent communication with the Fire Behavior Analyst and Incident Meteorologist to better anticipate threats. If the Safety Officer sees a potentially dangerous interaction between the fire and humans, they could contact the Operations Sections Chief, the Branch Director, or the Division Supervisor to advise them of the situation.
      –If someone, anyone, hears some radio traffic that leads them to believe that the location of firefighters might put them in danger, they could check the screen to ensure they were safe.
      –If a crew boss is on a ridge and the smoke is blowing at them and they have no visibility, they might have some doubts about the safety of their location. They could check the screen to see where the fire perimeter is and what the fire is doing, to help them make a decision about possibly relocating.
      –If a crew calls for immediate need air support, Air Attack or the Lead Plane could check the screen to see exactly where the crew is and get them the support they are asking for.

      You said:

      When a fire gets a bit chaotic like the YHF or Esperanza, that is exactly the time that you (Bill) seem to want someone monitoring this little computer screen on which the hotshots are tracked, yet that is exactly the time that the overhead is *least* able (and capable, quite frankly) to do it.

      If a supervisor on a fire can actually see their personnel and the fire, they would have no need to look at a screen to display the location of their firefighters and the fire. So if the situation is critical, they would not have to look at a screen. However, if they don’t know, or are not certain of those two pieces of information, they could, instead of looking directly at the firefighters and the fire which they can’t see, they would INSTEAD, look at a screen for a few seconds to ensure everyone was safe, or to direct them to move to a certain location that was safe. There would only be a need for this for supervisors who can’t physically see the fire perimeter and all of their personnel.

      And if someone is mesmerized by what they see on the screen and spend 100 percent of their time looking at it, they need to find another job.

      Actually, it is difficult for me to understand why anyone would not want to have this capability on wildfires. It could save lives.

      The military has been doing this for years. Perhaps Bean or others with a recent military background can give more examples of how they have seen real time battle intelligence used. Bean has said, “Blind men can’t fight”.

      1. What Bill is talking about is called the “common operational picture”(COP) While a shared COP doesn’t guarantee better, more prompt decisions, the lack of timely information guarantees less effective operations and decisions by those in charge of asset allocation, tasking, and operational decision making. If you can’t “see” your situation it’s very hard to take effective action. Space does not allow describing the synergistic effects of networked prompt information. Google “network centric warfare”.

  2. Garmin already has the technology as do other companies. For example; if you take one of Garmin’s dog tracker GPS units and make slight modifications you have an excellent hand held devise capable of tracking 20 resources. According to their web site it has a 9 mile range. It updates every two seconds. Add birds eye view and you have the potential to have an incredible amount of information in hand. These devices work very well, especially under less than ideal conditions. One of these systems is under consideration for our local unit. Cost is about a grand depending on the number of transmitters needed. That would seem pretty cost effect. I believe this site may have featured an article that Florida State Forestry has developed there own sysytem. Do I think a tracking system would be worth it. HELL YES! Just as long as the feds don’t try to re-invent the wheel that is already made. Keep up the great work Bill

  3. I see where it could be useful, but I think we’re taking the wrong lesson from Yarnell in this instance. The way I see it, the lesson we should take with us is an iteration of “Maintain prompt communications with your forces, your supervisor, and adjoining forces.” That is to say: don’t sneak around, change tactics or location without notifying anyone, or expect aviation to save you at the last minute when you’ve trekked through the green fuel without knowing what your fire is doing. And don’t follow anyone who tells you to do so. (I know the real story isn’t this simple, but I’m responding to the simple suggestion that GPS will fix these human factor problems.)

    GPS locators could be an awesome tool for a GISS, who could then inform the IC, or Ops, or Planning. But I can also see it as yet another distraction for a DIVS, who doesn’t need their nose in a screen.

    1. Sitta, hi. (I went to high school with a Sitta Schoeffler – same person? Small world.)

      John Maclean’s essays made clear that GM or DivsA were communicating where they were going. Air Attack and Cordes and Beery and others recall hearing it.

      Bill’s suggestion about having a safety officer take the job of monitoring crews on a little screen is a decent one. Sometimes the safety officers are engaged and doing productive things to enhance safety on the fire, and sometimes other safety officers are going around telling guys who are on the chow line to roll their sleeves down to cover their wrists. The latter type of guys should be monitoring the gps on computer screens. We should keep the former kind of safety officers out in the field, since they are adding value there.

      1. Loyal,

        When you look at the actual communications that came from GM, communication doesn’t seem to have been that precise. Relevant in this case because GPS could have added to the information given.

    2. I think in some situations GPS tracking could certainly provide clear info on where a crew is. Right now, that info can also be provided directly, but in cases where it may not be provided, whether due to lack of mindfulness or other reasons, having a GPS tie-in can make it literally harder to fall off the radar screen (or, well, GPS screen).

      In terms of dogs, both GPS and telemetry do currently have their limitations in rugged country, but even there many do now find using both to be very valuable simply in tracking pointing breeds or hounds.

      However, to state the obvious, it’s tough to put a GPS collar on a fire. So, mindfulness of fire behavior and current conditions still would be essential. Having seen people who can’t find a cup of yuppie coffee because their smartphone doesn’t have reception, high-tech navigational aids don’t necessarily produce better outcomes. Skilled use of them can. So, maybe not a holy grail to me, but still a desirable thing assuming proven tech (including existing homebrew solutions) is used and the price kept down to reasonable levels.

  4. This is sort of a sore subject with me.
    The technology has existed for at least 10 years and is absurd it has not been adopted in the fire service. It comes down to money and true commitment to FF safety and accountability, not just the lip service I hear so often.
    Resources on a fire would not have to be monitored continuously, only when it hits the fan. It would give the IC, DIVS, ECC or whoever another tool to confirm locations and identity of those resources if/when something happens. Take the latest example: the Yarnell fire. It would be silly to expect an IC or whoever to watch a crew hiking up the fire line, but when the fire blows up, the IC can glance at this screen, to confirm the resources are where they should be, or should not be, and not have to waste air time checking on the resources that are already safe.
    Another example: how many times on a fire do you here? “Hey Crew/Engine what’s your locations?” or It would eliminate all that radio traffic and free up the air for important traffic.
    The next time a politician or fire department administrator, stands up and delivers a eulogy at a FF memorial, and gushes on about how proud they are of all the brave firefighters, remember they control the purse strings, they can spend the money on whatever they want to spend it on.

  5. In May 1994, while I was the Fire Program Leader at the Missoula T&D Center, I authored a Tech Tip on “GPS Use in Wildland Fire Management”; I gave a paper on the same subject in May 1996 at the USFS Remote Sensing Applications Conference in Denver. I have several GPS units that I use both for pleasure and for business, and actually own a few shares of stock in Garmin.
    I’m offering these comments because I’d hate for anyone to think that I’m an anti-technology Luddite when they read the following thoughts.
    It seems to me that our current discussions about the use of GPS to improve firefighter safety have a few major failings. In a perfect world, such as a trucking company or a police department, all of the “units” are known and can be tracked using this worderful technology. It does improve safety and efficiency because the “knowns” are given and understood.
    Much of the discussion about using GPS on wildfires talks about “Division Supervisors”, Safety Officers”, “Plans” and “Operations”. What if you’re dealing with an emerging fire situation (like Yarnell) where the Incident Management Team is barely in place and all of those critical positions are not filled? How about IA and extended IA throughout many of the Western States where multiple agencies are responding: who has the Lead, and how are the GPS locations coordinated in a timely manner? Even here in western Montana, an emerging fire like the 2013 “Lolo Creek” fire can have responding untis from the Montana DNRC, Lolo and Bitterroot NFs, the Smokejumper base, Missoula Rural FD, Frenchtown FD, Florence FD, and officers from several Sheriff’s Offices. Even on larger an more organized fires, there are multiple resources at risk that should be tracked: obviously crews, but how about single resource engines, Strike Teams, dozers, water tenders, fallers, fireline EMTs, single resource bosses and others on the fireline/ This also assumes that we always know where the fire perimeter is. And to assume that an ATGS or ASM will be involved in tracking ground units is to ignore the complexity of their current job of keeping track of air resources travelling at over 100 mph so that no metal gets bent in the sky!

    As I mentioned in the beginning, I’m not anti-GPS, and in fact have been a long-time supporter of its use in fire; but let’s not paint the picture that a GPS system is a panacea for our wildfire safety concerns. It still seems, in the ever-changing conditions on the fire ground, that attention to the basics of the 10/18/LCES will be more reliable than technology when our firefighter’s safety is at risk.

  6. As Dick says “As I mentioned in the beginning, I’m not anti-GPS, and in fact have been a long-time supporter of its use in fire; but let’s not paint the picture that a GPS system is a panacea for our wildfire safety concerns. It still seems, in the ever-changing conditions on the fire ground, that attention to the basics of the 10/18/LCES will be more reliable than technology when our firefighter’s safety is at risk.”

    What do you go into the forest with? A compass or a GPS? Learn to use a compass, read a map, read fire behavior and make a decision. GPS and “management” are not the panacea for you to make stupid decisions.

  7. Bill:
    I think the holy grail is a good name for this technology. It is so illusive. As I write this from my personal iPad tonight. I am in the process of trying to acquire iPads for each of my 5 district FMOs. I have been told the allocation in my region is all spoken for. Most of them went to regional employees and line officers. So we may get one –thankfully- and one more next year. Local funding is not the issue. I planned and budgeted for this tool. Pardon me; I got a call on my personal iPhone. My government black berry doesn’t have service at my home (same carrier ). It was one of my FMOs on his personal iPhone. His flip phone is not working. Well it comforts me to know the RO and WO staffs and folks at the ABQ service center can get a geo referenced map of their office should they be unsure of their best escape route or safety zone.
    A 12 year old has a better chance of having this technology then a GS-11 DFMO with just a little more responsibility for firefighter safety. I am greatfull that many of my employes have spent their hard-earned personal funds to have good technology and use it to be more effective at work.

    I would agree with Dick that the 10-13 oops 18-LCES are still the key. Vigilance to the basics have served me well over the years. Technology can enhance our situational awareness but it’s no substitute for personal vigilance.

    Firefighters haven’t really found any new ways to be killed or injured. We have struggled to understand the why or human factors of the event. I believe that many of the sad events we will remember this week , were one voice away from being a non-event.
    My prayer is that on my watch, I will be vigilant and listening for that one voice.

    …and so each time I here the bell … you know I fly for those who fell…

  8. For those of you who have never seen a common operational picture …

    An early attempt to solve the military avoidable loss problem was the institution of Rules of Engagement [a rough equivalent of your 10/18/LCES]. That was found to be absolutely essential but insufficient. It is possible for your adversary to operate inside your decision cycle [ a fire can move and change faster than your sensing, decision, and response cycle]. At this point, ROE is insufficient.

    A follow on was to begin electronically sharing information on the location of friendly and hostile units. A digital common operating picture was developed and shared. This reduced friendly fire issues and improved asset operational efficiency. With up to date information, it is possible to get more assets to the right place at the right time and evacuate or support threatened assets. The military had been using map and compass a very long time and paper charts were not nearly as effective when compared with modern graphic information systems. Ask any commercial aviator, today’s flying has shifted to digital information, digital navigation and position display systems. Bill is suggesting firefighters do the same.

    You can fight but you cannot not fight as effectively and efficiently unless you know where the threat is, where its going [in your case the fire] and where your own units are and where they are going. Knowledge of fire location, movement and projected movement, location of assets, their allocation and movement are all critical to efficient operations. The military uses data links and a joint tactical information display system to distribute a common operational picture. A picture is worth a thousand words. A common picture significantly increases efficiency, reduces voice communications requirements, and greatly simplifies command and control.

    Those responsible for operational firefighting decisions need access to a shared common operational picture and reliable communications. Even if the issue is organizing the IA, self organization of arriving units and eventual integration into an IMT is greatly facilitated with a common picture.

    The military C4ISR system was developed in the school of hard knocks and has proven its worth. Some of you are military aviators and have seen what JTIDS/MIDS can do. It seems reasonable to ask why firefighters who also have a very hazardous job have not tried out similar concepts and capabilities. Nothing has to be invented, it only needs to be adapted and tailored to firefighting.

    1. But let’s not forget that,with all of the military’s advanced technology, there were 5 “friendly fire” fatalities in June 2014.

      1. You are absolutely right, It’s not perfect. But I’d bet that without it, things would have been much worse.

  9. Tracking real-time movements of ground resources doesn’t really buy you that much without real-time updates on fire perimeter.

  10. Probably there is relatively affordable technology that can be adapted for the fire perimeter issue. Is there a reason why something as cheap as a quadcopter can’t carry a suitably lightweight IR sensor? Certainly they carry regular cameras for areas where smoke and terrain don’t limit them and could carry GPS.

    More exotic an idea might be to build on some military detection technology that was used in Vietnam to drop lots of miniature sensors in an area; if they can sense temperature, know their position, and transmit that info, then the IC could know if a fire is on the move. If a quadcopter can be developed that can deliver pizza….

    1. Pat, you’re on the mark.

      CALFIRE has IR equipped aircraft that can do the job with a bit more work. Colorado is buying two “surveillance” aircraft with IR mapping capability. Coulson has an IR equipped helo that can link fire location data back to their C-130. The USFS has IR imaging aircraft and has solicited for additional IR capable aircraft for use as ATGS aircraft.

      The HAM radio world has a packet network called APRS that reports position and other data over VHF mobile radio [even handhelds] automatically or every time the mic is keyed. APRS data is displayed on digital maps accessed via the internet [TCP/IP protocol]. APRS also ties in remote weather station info on their network. Here’s the Denver area map http://aprs.fi/#!lat=39.69480&lng=-105.03360

      This kind of network could integrate your idea of remote distributed sensors and also do the position reporting and display.

      Here’s a standalone tracking system used by competition gliders that represents an acceptable “bolt on” aircraft tracking capability for ASM / ATSG/ tankers and other aircraft http://www.way.aero/index.html

      The FAA is instituting an automatic aircraft position reporting system [ADS-B] that will eventually be a requirement for all large aircraft including LATS and VLATS. http://www.faa.gov/nextgen/implementation/programs/adsb/

      Weather forecasts and storm cell tracking are available over cell nets.

      There are numerous GIS systems out there that can be used to integrate and display all the info on laptops, tablets, or even cell phones.

      The commercial technology is already there. Military technology is overkill and way too expensive. What’s actually needed is an organization with vision and a plan that can integrate existing off the shelf technology and make it happen.

  11. Great discussion, and this is all very doable with technology now. COPs are readily available from a variety of vendors, although very few are focused on wildland fire. Folks should check out the capabilities of Technosylva’s fiResponse software – http://www.firesponse.com. it is exactly what Bill is talking about – in fact, the State of Texas just bought into this system after evaluating it for some time. I expect other state agencies and perhaps even federal to follow suit. It is the also system of choice in Spain and provides integration of real-time GPS/AVL and flight following. Very cool stuff. They’ve been using it for 14+ years in all agencies – provincial, federal and military.

    But i agree with the comments, technology isn’t the issue, it’s really about policies and acceptance within the agencies. Situational awareness, and what i would call “operational awareness” (for the resource on scene and in the field), this is very doable although few agencies have adopted it yet. They will soon.
    And btw, i don’t work for Technosylva, i am just aware of their technology.

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