Senator says to DOI official, “Don’t hold us back” from getting location tracking devices for our firefighters

(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.

Bryan Rice Senator Maria Cantwell.
Left to right: Bryan Rice and Senator Maria Cantwell.

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 Safetyknowing 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.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

13 thoughts on “Senator says to DOI official, “Don’t hold us back” from getting location tracking devices for our firefighters”

  1. Very interesting. I am very curious to see where this goes! Bill, I have always been curious about instituting “par” checks in the wildland fire service, similar to the similar practice that is often carried out on structure fire scenes. What are your thoughts? Thanks !

    1. Jack-

      The personnel accountability report (PAR), or roll call is sometimes done every 20 minutes on a structure fire. In that situation, if one person does not respond it is usually feasible to find them in minutes. They might be unconscious or trapped, and it could save a life. Most of the time on a wildland fire people work in groups of 2 to 20, so if someone is in trouble, others know. But there could be times, especially at night, when within a 3 to 20-person crew that gets spread out, it could be a good idea to do a roll call on a radio frequency that does not have a lot of traffic. When there are dozens or hundreds of personnel on a wildland fire, a roll call every 20 minutes would be an unacceptable hog of radio time.

  2. Please don’t take this comment as an understatement of the importance of firefighter safety, but……in my opinion the “Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety” is yet another high dollar widget intended to address the low frequency / high severity incidents on the fireline and allows our upper level leadership to sit happily behind their desks thinking that they have made a positive difference in the fire community. It simply perpetuates the “Big Lie”. By the time a manufacturer redesigns and refines a glorified dog collar and markets said item to the wildland fire community it will cost 25 times (who really knows…) what the original dog collar would have and we will still have low frequency / high severity incidents. Let’s put this into context….we injure and kill more firefighers in MVA’s on average than any other mechanism (high frequency / high severity). Where are our priorities?

    Let’s quit buying “stuff” and invest in our people. Let’s keep our perm / subject to furlough folks on all year, educate them, train the heck out of them, give them exposure and experiences, and enable them to be outstanding fire managers. Let’s honor our fallen by investing in the development of their successors, by doing our jobs better, and by learning from the mistakes of the past…..not by squandering what money has been appropriated to fire management on widgets.

    1. One of your arguments is that a location tracking system would be too expensive. What is the dollar figure you have in mind that we should pay for a system that has a high potential to save lives? Is $100 per firefighter too much? Or $200, $400, or $25? Have you asked the families of the 24 firefighters that died in the Esperanza and Yarnell Hill Fires?

      The facts are, during the 15-year period between 1990 and 2014, 92 firefighters were killed by being entrapped in a wildland fire, which was 21% of the fatalities. Traffic accidents accounted for 22%. Very similar fatality numbers. But you referred to entrapment fatalities as “low frequency / high severity” and “MVA’s” as “high frequency / high severity”.

      All of what you propose as solutions for firefighters being killed in entrapments have been suggested many times before, and most have been implemented to various degrees. The reality is, any changes or improvements that have not already been made by management along these lines probably will not get done. The Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety would be a new approach and could be done with technology available today. It’s not that difficult.

      What you appear to be suggesting is, keep doing the same thing but expect different results.

      When the present day military sends their warriors into a major battle, do you think they have systems that provide, when possible, (1) where the enemy is, and (2) where their own forces are? Do firefighters deserve the same protection? Does the military say, let’s do more training instead, or “do our jobs better”? A wildfire can easily be monitored in real time from a manned or unmanned aircraft, day or night, and systems already exist to track firefighters.

  3. I appreciate your feedback Bill and I am listening. I think that there are valid arguments on both sides. I’m just not convinced that someone in ICP knowing where every firefighter is in real time is going to reduce fireline fatalities. It’s not a monetary value per firefighter conversation….I value my fellow firefighters more than I can possibly articulate. My commentary is on how to best utilize funding across the fire management community. I should always know where my subordinates are. That is a burden that I have chosen to accept in the management of fire. I expect that performance from every fireline supervisor.

  4. I am not sure how the tracking system would have stopped the Prescott Hotshots from leaving their location, getting trapped and burned over. Seems we have lost more firefighters during initial attack phase of a fire or transition time to an overhead team. This is when it can be the most confusing for the firefighters on the ground. Especially when the fire blows up.

    Any death is too many on a fire. Firefighting is a dangerous job. A tracking device may help, yet I can’t help but think that improved training in situational awareness, safety and leadership may pay off more.

    1. A tracking system would not have prevented the Granite Mountain Hotshots from initially leaving the area where they were safe, but after they began moving if anyone with a better view of the fire, the real time location of the fire, had seen on their display that the crew was moving into a dangerous direction, they could have alerted the crew, possibly before they reached that canyon. As you probably know, the overhead on the fire thought the crew had remained at their safe spot and didn’t know they had relocated.

      On the 2006 Esperanza Fire in southern California, Branch II and the Captain of Engine 57 had an understanding that the Engine crew would not remain at the Octagon house, where they eventually died (see page 9 of the USDA OIG report). The crew was supposed to go to an area identified as a safety zone and not try to defend the house, according to information provided by Branch II. For some reason the crew decided to defend the house, setting up hose lays and a portable pump. The fire entrapped them at that location, killing all five members of the crew.

      If Branch II, an Operations Section Chief, or a Safety Officer had access to real time information about the location of their resources on the fire and the real time location of the fire, it is likely that the engine crew would have been directed, again, to go to the safety zone as instructed earlier by Branch II.

      1. As I recall, a VLAT was on-station in response to the imminent Yarnell Hill burn-over but could not reasonably drop on a needle in a smoke-obscured haystack. I suspect in this case the final outcome could have been different if the crew had HGWFS. LR

        1. Are you saying that if the Aerial Supervision Module and the air tanker pilots had known the exact coordinates of the crew, an 11,600-gallon retardant drop may have led to a different outcome, even with the ground being obscured by dense smoke? Hmmmm. Of course the very strong outflow winds from the thunderstorm would generally make any air support ineffective as far as stopping the spread of the fire. But almost 12,000 gallons of retardant, if it could have been placed accurately under the windy conditions through the smoke to create a better deployment site, is interesting to consider.

          I see the HGWFS as helping to PREVENT entrapments, but after a firefighting resource gets into trouble for a variety of reasons, knowing exactly where they are at that time can also be important and can at least result in a more timely rescue.

          And then there was the time a firefighter was scouting a fire alone and wrecked his ATV. After eight days of searching by hundreds of people Captain Token Adams was found dead.

          You can’t really put a price on the value of this location information.

          1. Yes. A “pinpoint” huge wet and gooey pink splat through dense smoke and strong low-level laminar wind might have created a safe haven for a deployment site.

            As for Token’s unfortunate death it’s a moot point whether cause of death was the ATV rollover itself or the combination of it and the extended search/location time. It brings to mind Lojack type GPS vehicle trackers and SPOT (which you introduced many of your readers to) and similar personal GPS locators.

            If a tight group of FF’s all activated their locators could those multiple signals increase pinpoint location? As for a VLAT drop I’m confident the flight crew knows what they are doing and the sheer mass of the plane would likely add stability in the strong outflow winds for a super-low level drop. All conjecture about something past but there is the future. LR

    1. “Bill”

      I composed and sent an emailed response, but it turns out that you left a fake email address, so I assume that “Bill” is not your name.

      Yes, one the three comments you left on the site was not approved.

      Opinions are welcome. What is NOT acceptable is making up disparaging “facts” about dead firefighters and presenting it as truth and saying that was the reason for the fatalities on the Esperanza and Yarnell Hill Fires. I was just talking with one of the firefighters’ widows. She would be devastated to see that some troll wrote stuff like that. I know you’re just throwing crap out there to try to get a reaction, but it won’t happen on my websites. Find some other place to spew your garbage.

      We try to avoid publishing fake news. If you have any questions:

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