Robot proposed to put out fires; no need to update your resume yet

robot firefighterA German industrial design studio, apparently with no expertise in wildland fire, has developed a concept for a robot that would be pre-positioned in the wildland. When it’s sensors detect a fire from up to 1/2 mile away, it would wake up, extend it’s 6 legs, walk to the fire, and put it out using tanks of water and powdered fire-extinguishing agents.

Unless a fire is very small, it can take shit-loads of water to put one out, so unless these robots are going to carry 500-1,000 gallons of water, or unless there are going to be shit-loads of robots, your job is pretty secure. Oh… and the cost of each one is estimated at $125,000-$200,000.

The article at Popsci.com says the weight of the robots will be 150-200 pounds, which means they could hold about 5-15 gallons of water, depending on how much other fire extinguishing agent they carry.

Photo from Popsci.com

BIA cuts hot shot crews

Due to budget reductions within the 2008 Interior Appropriations budget, the Bureau of Indian Affairs is reducing their hot shot crews from nine to seven. Effective immediately, according to a memo dated March 19, the Mescalero Hot Shots of their Southwest Region, and the Bear Paw Hot Shots of their Rocky Mountain Region, are disbanded. A Reduction-in-Force, which means employees may be fired, is to begin within 10 days.

European Union considers rapid reaction force

Athens wildfireThe European Union (EU), comprised of 27 member states, has been considering since April of 2007 the development of a rapid reaction force that could respond quickly to wildland fires, floods, and other emergencies. The parliament even passed a resolution to that effect, but little has taken place to make it happen.

I recently talked with someone in the UK who told me that in the last 2 weeks, due to last summer’s fires in Greece, the fire on the Greek island a couple of weeks ago, and the recent flooding in the UK, discussions along these lines have accelerated. In addition to other resources, they are considering a fleet of air tankers that could respond quickly to wildland fires in any of the 27 member states. The resources would be funded by the EU and is being advocated by the Directorate for Civil Protection.

Photo: Athens burning, July, 2007

California: Prescribed Fire Blog

The San Bernardino National Forest is conducting a multiple-day prescribed fire near Lytle Creek, California. What makes this one interesting is that they have an ongoing blog describing the actual daily events, along with lots of photos. One photo shows in the background snow on what I assume is a north-facing slope, while someone is running a drip torch in the foreground. It can be a luxury to do a prescribed fire when certain slopes or areas are unburnable due to differences in fuel moisture or snow cover.

Gabe Garcia, the Cajon District Ranger, and Deputy District Ranger Mary Long are providing the updates. This is the first time I have heard of daily blogging about a prescribed fire event, but I think it’s a great idea. It is not on a typical blog site, but is on the Wrightwood, California forum. It is worth a visit.

Firefighters’ distrust of digital radio system grows

When fire agencies began moving to trunked 700-800 MHz radio systems in larger numbers 5-7 years ago, I remember reading a study of similar systems used in

Thale Racal radio
Thale Racal radio

Australia which concluded that these systems have no business being used for emergency services, and that they should only be used, for example, for garbage pickup.

From Mobile Radio Technology (April 1, 2008):

On April 16, 2007, firefighter Kyle Wilson was part of a crew dispatched to fight a residential fire in Woodbridge, Va. He died in the line of duty.

A detailed report on the incident recently released by Prince William County Department of Fire and Rescue concluded that problems associated with the use of the county’s Motorola digital trunked radio system contributed to the tragedy. Issues reported by other firefighters during that incident, which was further complicated by strong winds, ranged from signal distortion and transmission failure to radios displaying “out of range” signals.

Fire safety advocates now are encouraging fire departments across the country to study the incident in hopes that future tragedies could be avoided. Prince William County’s fire department, through further tests, concluded that digital portable radios are “extremely vulnerable to poor environmental conditions and interference of digital noise from ambient sources, which negatively impact the ability of emergency personnel to effectively communicate.”

A handful of fire and police departments, fearing the loss of lives, have opted to continue using analog systems even when the rest of their county’s emergency personnel are using digital trunking systems.

The common complaint, which most affects fire departments, concerns the digital vocoder’s inability to differentiate between a voice transmission and background noise – whether a chain saw, sprayed water or personal alarm. Background noise renders the voice transmission distorted and often unintelligible. Another critical problem is that digital radios lose contact inside buildings. “In most cases, it is a very political and sensitive position to abandon expensive technology and go back to something that is old,” said Daryl Jones, owner and president of Telecommunications Engineering Associates, which manages public safety systems throughout the San Mateo area in California. “But many agencies are finding that complaints from line personnel, both in fire and police, are so significant.”

The Boise (Idaho) Fire Department spent about $1 million two years ago on mobile and portable radio equipment to join a cutting-edge countywide 700 MHz digital trunking system. While training users on the system, the fire department discovered problems with voice intelligibility when a firefighter’s low-air alarm went off. That led the department to investigate the issue further, and it found more instances where alarms interfered with the quality of voice transmissions. Today, the department and other fire departments in the county remain on analog VHF radios while the rest of the county operates on the 700 MHz digital trunking system.

“Right now our dispatch center wants to dump VHF,” said Paul Roberts, a captain with the Boise Fire Department, “[and] we are trying to look at alternatives to at least get on a system that will lessen the load on dispatchers having to patch all of this together. … But until there is a solution to the digital processing of speech when you have competing noises, we have to stay on analog.”

The problems associated with digital systems became known in 2006. Since then, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) established a Digital Problem Working Group and appointed Chief Charles Werner of Charlottesville, Va., to serve as its chair. So far, the working group has explored the creation of a best practices solution to work around the problem until a long-term solution can be found. Prince William County’s findings have been forwarded to that group for inclusion in the process.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) also is analyzing the problem, as are radio manufacturers such as M/A-COM and Motorola. They are expected to jointly release a formal analysis – in conjunction with the IAFC – that encompasses best practices to help departments to minimize the problems.

“We’re running through this scientifically and hope to distribute a wrap-up summary shortly,” Werner said.

Roberts, who chairs the IAFC testing group, says the testing – conducted by radio engineers – involves taking words that sound alike and requiring the listener to distinguish which word is being said over the background noise of chainsaws and hose sprays.

Motorola declined to comment, saying it was cooperating with the testing and awaiting the conclusions from NIST and the IAFC.

But Chris Lougee, vice president with LMR vendor Icom America, thinks older technology would help solve these background noise problems. “Everyone knew from the beginning that the P25 vocoder was a half-rate vocoder. As you speak into the microphone, you are converting human voice into a data stream that is reassembled at the end,” Lougee said. “TIA … is encouraging a move to a full-rate vocoder, which we are doing. It vastly improves the amount of audio and quality.”

Rapid City Journal: "Keep fire center at airport"

Northern Great Plains DispatchThe Rapid City Journal has taken sides in the battle between the Federal Aviation Administration and the wildland fire agencies in the FAA’s efforts to evict the Northern Great Plains Interagency Dispatch Center from the Rapid City Regional Airport.

The FAA wants to evict the dispatch center, tear down the building, and then allow a private company to use the space to build an aircraft hanger.

An editorial in today’s Rapid City Journal calls this “bad fiscal policy and bad firefighting policy”. And:

“…public safety issues of wildfire suppression should take precedence over the needs of the private sector for bigger and better hangar space.”

They are absolutely right. All involved parties agreed to have the dispatch center at the airport. They spent $1.8 million to build it, and to tear it down after just a few years would be an incredible waste of taxpayers’ dollars.