(Revised August 15, 2017)
During an August 3 hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources the main topic was “the use of technology to reduce wildland fire risk to communities and enhance firefighting safety and effectiveness”.
Near the end of the hearing Senator Maria Cantwell, the ranking member, asked Bryan Rice, the Department of Interior’s Director of the Office of Wildland Fire, about using devices that can track the location of firefighters in order to reduce their risk of entrapments. She used the example of an award that was presented to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife employee who successfully used hardware designed for tracking hunting dogs to track his firefighters, which helped one person to be directed to a safe area after becoming disoriented on a prescribed fire. She said why not combine the use of drones, which had been discussed previously, with tracking devices. I’m not sure exactly what she meant, but regardless she has a good point. Drones could serve at least two purposes — provide real time video of the location of the fire, and relay location data from firefighters.
Mr. Rice’s answer included the phrase, “we’re looking at it”, which did not satisfy Senator Cantwell. She expanded on her thoughts and made it very clear that this is an important area to address, mentioning several examples of tragedy fires, including the South Canyon, Thirty-mile, and Yarnell Hill fires.
The Senator said to Mr. Rice, “Don’t hold us back from getting solutions in the marketplace this summer if we can”.
You can see how this went down in the video below. (The video was replaced with a better version August 15, 2017.)
Our regular visitors at Wildfire Today know that we have ranted many times about what we call the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety — knowing the real time location of the fire and firefighters — as early as October, 2013. Not knowing these two pieces of information has led to dozens of fatalities. Two fires that come to mind in the last decade or so are the Esperanza and Yarnell Hill Fires, in which 24 firefighters were killed.
If you can go to Cabelas and buy a kit that will track up to 10 hunting dogs, why, Senator Cantwell asked, can’t we do that for firefighters?
The Senator knows that dog collars are not the long-term answer, of course, and they may or may not work over distances in rough terrain, but it’s an example of off the shelf technology that is available this afternoon. Several private companies claim to have more robust systems that can do this for wildland firefighters.