Legislation would provide “Holy Grail” for wildland firefighters

Senate Bill 2209 would enhance situational awareness for firefighters

Smoky conditions on the Legion Lake Fire
Smoky conditions on the Legion Lake Fire in Custer State Park in South Dakota, December 12, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Two U.S. Senators are co-sponsoring a bill that would enhance the safety and situational awareness of wildland firefighters. Senate Bill 2290 would be an important step toward what we have called the “Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety”. This concept would provide the real time location of a wildfire and the resources working on the incident. Too often fatalities have occurred when firefighters did not know where the fire was or overhead personnel were not aware of the position of firefighters who were endangered by the quickly spreading fire. Or both at the same time.

The legislation would require the Departments of Interior and Agriculture to jointly develop and operate “a tracking system to remotely locate the positions of fire resources assigned to Federal Type 1 Wildland Fire Incident Management Teams”.

A complimentary requirement in the bill is “unmanned aircraft systems to [supply] real-time maps, detect spot fires, assess fire behavior, develop tactical and strategic firefighting plans, position fire resources, and enhance firefighter safety”.

The sponsoring Senators are a Democrat and a Republican, Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Cory Gardner (R-CO). Since the bill was introduced January 10, 2018 no further action has taken place and no additional Senators have signed on, so it appears there is not much momentum pushing it through the process.

Here are the first two paragraphs in a press release issued by Senator Gardner’s office:

Washington D.C. —U.S. Senators Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) introduced the Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act of 2017, a bill designed to bring firefighting agencies into the 21st century.

This bill will increase firefighter safety by requiring the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to begin providing GPS locations for crews on wildfires and to begin using Unmanned Aircraft Systems to scout out and map wildfires in real-time. Wildfire Today refers to the simultaneous use of mapping aircraft and GPS locators as the ‘Holy Grail’ of firefighter safety.

It is nice to see that at least two Senators are thinking about firefighter safety.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bean.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

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+

11 thoughts on “Legislation would provide “Holy Grail” for wildland firefighters”

  1. Im an instructor for wildland and all other subjects at a California Regional fire academy. I always honor all fallen fighters that meet my teaching objectives by sharing how the loss of a fellow fire deptartment member occured so those individuals ‘stay alive’ in todays world. There are just tooo many in recent years.

    Please one and all active and retired firefighters contact your representative and demand their attention to the proposed bill!

    Thank you one and all for your service, and now help protect our current and future firefighters! Its our job to do so!
    Rick Burroughs, Capt. Retired

  2. Bill why should we be surprised that this bill and recent national wildfire funding bills are stuck in the black hole of the Beltway. Sad but hey we have less air tankers this year too. Inept

  3. I’ve contacted my congressional delegation and have encouraged them to work actively to get this bill passed and introduce a companion bill in the House of Representatives. I encourage everyone else to do the same!

  4. I applaud the intent of the Bill. I do have some reservation on its implementation.
    Many of the deaths to wildland firefighters have happened during initial attack, Type III or II fires. The Bill addresses Type I fires. The majority of wildland fires never reach Type I status. While it is a start it falls short for firefighter safety.

    Remembering the Yarnell Fire the deaths of the Hotshot crew occurred when the fire was still in a Type III command mode. I have questions regarding how the small volunteer or other fire departments can acquire the “tracking” equipment when being assigned to a Type I fire. Many of the small fire departments don’t have large surplus budgets.

    I will be contacting my representative asking them to support the Bill. I also will ask them to look at improving safety for initial attack and fires below Type I.

    1. MFisher,

      The marine community has been working on vessel tracking for years employing digital selective calling [DSC]. Here is an example of a VHF capability in use by the “yachties” today. http://myboatsgear.com/2017/01/08/position-polling/

      Not a stretch to use something similar for firefighting provided the radios used for communications are digital capable.

      Commercial shipping uses AIS to keep track of everyone. At its lowest technical level, it can use standard marine VHF radios to pass AIS information. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automatic_identification_system

      Older straight analog voice radios would require something like the APRS concept that works very well for the amateur radio community today . https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automatic_Packet_Reporting_System

      The aviation industry is mandated to go to ADS-B for situational awareness. https://www.faa.gov/nextgen/programs/adsb/ ADS-B would enable tracking of air tankers and other aviation assets in a fire TFR.

  5. There are problems with P25 Digital radio propagation that have limited it’s use due to signal reflection bouncing off canyons and buildings, especially if you are moving. P25 is also limited to 9600 bps (MAX maybe) which limits the amount of data you are able to send.

    My suspicion is they are trying to find a way to backdoor fund FirstNet, as this program has ran into problems getting implemented. https://potsandpansbyccg.com/2017/08/21/firstnet-a-boon-or-boondoggle/ https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/09/the-47-billion-network-thats-already-obsolete/492764/ .

    The amount of data needed for the “Holy Grail” requires a 800Mhz Cell backbone separate from the Public cell system. As cell signals do not go far as VHF, you need to have more radio sites located closer together tied together with microwave. Very expensive and power hungry. Just getting temporary cellular coverage to wildfires is a complex undertaking, putting up a complete temporary system would be a huge task.

    Then there is always the problem of the batteries needed to run these electronic devices. Already having AA battery life problems with the new P25 handhelds (they were designed to use Li-Ion re-chargeable, AA is an afterthought to get on FED contract). Can foresee more charging/battery problems with the new tech toys. Remember to KISS.

  6. All of the technology exists to cover the two basic missions outlined in the bill – Tracking entities on a map using their geo-coordinates and carrying sensors on UAVs – This has been done daily for more than a decade now by the military. They are building blocks of network centric warfare. The underlying protocols and tech are mature. The trick here is to integrate an affordable, robust and usable system for civil use. Unfortunately there is also a tendency to oversell what the technology can do and what the true cost is. Different regions of the country have different natural disaster risks. Wildfire is the predominate risk in the West while flooding, severe weather, and earthquakes covers most of the rest of the country with plenty of overlap. Federal “one size fits all” solutions can turn into gigantic boondoggles easily. Competing interests among agencies can sink promising programs because of squabbles over limited resources. Who is going to be in charge of this? DHS, DA, USFS, FCC, FAA, BLM? All of these departments and agencies (and others) have interests, both real and perceived, in the end result. A clear concept of operations needs to be developed by the people who are going to implement these tools. They need to be aware of what is really possible (pretty amazing stuff!) and that any implementation should be as nearly transparent as possible to the end users. After all the last thing someone on the line needs to worry about is whether his tracker is working.

  7. I’m sure there are some simple reliable solutions but often as projects progress the original intent is overcome by complex add-ons. In 35 five years of doing risky tasks as a government employee and later a consultant I found that the best way to stay out of trouble was constant and diligent situational awareness. I told one supervisor who was attempting to get me into a known dangerous situation that I had no interests in getting hurt or killed that day and he could go do it alone.

  8. There is a technological solution just becoming available in the next month that solves this problem!! And, it does not require the extensive network infrastructure to accomplish it. In fact, the costs are exponentially less than the examples listed above. It does require all FF’s carry a smartphone, but no cell coverage is need. email me if you want the info Randyg711 at yahoo dot com

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