CAL FIRE to procure mobile data systems with location tracking capability

The system will enhance situational awareness for 1,200 firefighting resources.

Above: an example of a mobile data terminal made by Radio Mobile.

(Originally published at 10:50 a.m. MT February 15, 2018)

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) has signed a contract to provide technology in 1,200 state-owned vehicles that will facilitate mission critical data communications over a variety of networks (broadband, narrowband and satellite).

Under the agreement, RadioMobile will provide a centralized location tracking application within a mobile data terminal solution. The system receives incident information, provides mapping, and enables vehicle operators to communicate via a touchscreen application interfacing with their computer aided dispatching (CAD) system. The company will also provide the equipment, services, and support needed to implement a statewide VHF mobile data system and integrate network switching between broadband/cellular, VHF and satellite for CAL FIRE mobile resources.

We have been an advocate for the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighting, which is knowing the real time location of firefighters and the fire. This system will implement a portion of that, tracking the location of firefighting vehicles and other mobile equipment (but probably can’t track dismounted personnel). It will also have the capability of displaying a map, and when data is available it could show the location of the fire. For example, it could show a sketched-out hand drawn map of the fire, or live video from an air attack ship or drone orbiting 10,000 feet over the fire. And, importantly, it could indicate the location of all firefighting resources that have location tracking enabled.

When these functions are implemented, it will enhance the situational awareness of firefighters. Congratulations to CAL FIRE for taking a step to make their personnel just a little bit safer.

Radio Mobile
This is a screen shot from a Radio Mobile “about us” video. Notice anything interesting?

Field tests of tracking devices for firefighters

We have often advocated the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighting, which is knowing the real time location of firefighters and the fire.

There are many different technologies and platforms for collecting and displaying data about the location of the fire, but the information collected has yet to become commonplace in the hands fireline supervisors on the ground.

A similar situation exists for tracking the location of firefighting resources — personnel and equipment. The technology has existed for years, but the “deciders” in the National and State capitals have not recognized its importance for providing situational awareness, so it is only being used in a few scattered areas.

The Colorado Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting (yes, they are still using that name) recently evaluated and tested two consumer-level personal tracking devices, the SPOT Gen3® and the Garmin inReach® (formerly known as the DeLorme inReach).

The executive summary from their report is below. The full document can be downloaded HERE.


Executive Summary
Wildland firefighters frequently operate in remote areas and are often a significant distance away from their supervisors or other nearby units. Additionally, wildland firefighters typically communicate with voice radios operating in analog mode, which does not facilitate location tracking or other digital situational awareness. One technology proposed to overcome these limitations and provide GPS location tracking and messaging for firefighters is satellite messengers. The Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting (CoE) was requested to conduct a study of these devices to analyze their utility for firefighters. This study illustrated the technical specifications of two consumer-grade satellite messengers, the SPOT Gen3® and the Garmin inReach® (formerly known as the DeLorme inReach), and provided information on service options and costs. The study also assessed the capabilities of the SOS feature common to both devices and employed field trials to evaluate the performance of the devices in various types of vegetation and terrain.

SPOT Gen3The CoE found that the SPOT device provides a one-way flow of information from the device user to others using predesignated email addresses, text messages, or website access. This device requires programming ahead of use to designate the time interval for location tracking, as well as the content of the three types of messages it can send. The inReach device provides a two-way flow of information, with others able to communicate with the device user via email, text message, or website.

The SPOT device successfully transmitted a test SOS message from a meadow with a clear view of the sky, which then led to the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control Duty Officer being notified of the SOS within 3 minutes. The SOS testing scenario was on a prescribed pile burn under the control of the area interagency fire management unit and the plan was for the Duty Officer to contact the interagency dispatch center regarding the SOS and have them establish radio contact with the unit in distress. Unfortunately, the phone system at the dispatch center was down during the test and no notification could be made. The CoE recommends that for mission-critical applications like wildland fire, the SOS feature be tied directly into relevant computer-aided dispatch systems—a complex requirement for interagency centers that frequently host firefighters from off-unit and from a variety of agencies.

Garmin inReachTo determine the utility of the satellite messengers for personnel tracking, six field trials were conducted—two each in minimal, moderate, and heavy forest canopy. For each level of canopy, one test was conducted in rolling terrain and one in rugged terrain. These tests sought to establish the rate at which the location of a firefighter walking the perimeter of a simulated 100-acre fire with both devices set on a 5-minute tracking interval would be known to a supervisor watching in real-time via an Internet connection.

The CoE determined that both devices can transmit location information successfully with minimal delays when used under minimal and moderate forest canopies. However, under a heavy forest canopy the devices experienced difficulties. The SPOT device failed to transmit 20% of points and the inReach device took more than 5 minutes to transmit 50% of points (and during one test, failed to transmit 35% of points). The CoE recommends shortening the tracking interval when operating under heavy forest canopies to increase the odds of successful transmissions and cautions against relying solely on these devices to achieve situational awareness for firefighters operating under heavy forest canopies.

Colorado is a developing a system for relaying data to wildland firefighters

Above: screenshot from the video below.

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control is working on a system that could assist wildland firefighters on the ground by reporting their location as well as displaying current maps and real time aerial video of the fire.

Pending federal appropriations bill includes increase for suppression, decrease for volunteer assistance

Opinion: How SHOULD the federal fire agencies be funded?

Above: The Washington, DC headquarters of the U.S. Forest Service. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(Originally published at 9:53 a.m. MDT September 8, 2017)

The wildland fire appropriations bill that is being considered in the House of Representatives does not have any earth-shaking changes but it includes slight increases for fire suppression and fuels management, while State and Volunteer Fire Assistance would be cut.

H.R. 3354 would determine the amount of funding for about a dozen agencies, most of them within the Department of the Interior — including the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Fish and Wildlife Service,  National Park Service, and Forest Service.

Andy's Hump Fire, Idaho
Andy’s Hump Fire, Idaho. Inciweb.

It is being debated in committees and will undoubtedly change before it is approved in the House and Senate and signed by the President, but here are a few of the highlights related to wildland fire. The numbers are the appropriations for the Forest Service only.

  • The bill will again use the rolling 10-year average of fire suppression expenses as part of the computation for the new budget. Since the average went up, the bill includes a $15 million increase in suppression.
  • Hazardous fuel management increases by $3 million (less than 1 percent) to $393 million.
  • Within the Forest Service, hazardous fuel management funds will be moved from the Suppression account to the National Forest System Appropriation, as requested by the agency.
  • State Fire Assistance went down by $2 million to $76 million.
  • Volunteer Fire Assistance decreased by $1 million to $14 million.

The legislation will get rid of the Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement Act (FLAME). It was created in 2008 intended to provide dedicated funding for suppressing fires and hazardous fuel reduction treatments. The way it was managed by Congress over the years made it irrelevant and will now be collapsed into the Suppression account.

dollar signThere is still no fix for the “fire borrowing” issue that results in funds being taken from non-fire accounts when suppression expenses are exhausted. These accounts are usually reimbursed by Congress, but it can happen months later, which can cause chaos in programs unrelated to fire.

Our Opinion

Obviously the fire borrowing train wreck has to be fixed. This ridiculous situation should be a no-brainer.

Fires are getting larger, causing major disruptions in the lives of many taxpayers. Basing the funds for suppression on the 10-year average cost too often does not work.

The 10-year average of the acres burned in the U.S. to this date (September 8) is 5,515,998, while 8,036,858 acres have burned to date this year (National Interagency Fire Center, September 8, 2017). That is a 48 percent increase over the average.

Air Quality Index fire smoke
Air Quality Index at 9 a.m. PDT September 8, 2017 for areas in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. Smoke in this case is the main culprit.

Smoke from wildfires is affecting the health of millions. Often this summer the air quality in large areas of the Northwest has been classified according to air quality monitoring stations as Unsafe for Sensitive Groups, Unhealthy, Very Unhealthy, or Hazardous. A friend who has respiratory issues in South Dakota, hundreds of miles from any large fires, has been seriously affected by wildfire smoke this summer. Some families are having to take their children with asthma to hospitals when the smoke invades their community.

meeting Eagle Creek Fire
Community meeting at Hood River, Oregon for residents affected by the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia Gorge, September 7, 2017. Inciweb.

More successful fire suppression would reduce the smoke impacts on millions of people.

General Norman Schwarzkopf Jr.
General Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. November 1988. Wikipedia.

Not all fires are aggressively fought by the federal agencies. We can debate whether that is the best way to manage forests, but even if there is no change in that policy, more can be done to keep new fires from becoming large — and we can more aggressively suppress all unwanted fires. Successful battlefield Generals, including Norman Schwarzkopf, understand the concept.

A Wikipedia article about the General describes planning in 1991 for Desert Storm in Kuwait and Iraq:

U.S. commanders from the beginning wanted a quick conflict characterized by decisive, overwhelming force, as opposed to the gradual escalation of U.S. involvement as had been seen in Vietnam. Schwarzkopf in particular was very adamant that many of the policies governing military operations in Vietnam, especially slow escalation of air power and troop force, not recur. His plan for direct and overwhelming force was initially criticized in Washington as uncreative.

The fighting was basically over in less than 100 hours.

The same concepts relating to air power and troop force can be applied to fighting another enemy — unwanted wildfires. A timid initial attack on a new fire can allow it to spread to the point where no suppression attempts will be successful until there are major changes in the weather, fuels, or topography.

Dr. Gabbert prescription new fires magafires prevent

Some of us remember when aggressive initial attack was the norm in the federal agencies rather than the exception. In the short run it costs more to dispatch an overwhelming force to a new fire than using a timid approach with few resources arriving in the first 10 to 30 minutes, but it can prevent later expenses of tens of millions of dollars — and also prevent hundreds of firefighters from being tied up on one fire for weeks or months, as well as the loss of private property, evacuations, smoke, and timber being destroyed.

The cost and disruption caused by evacuations from fires is rarely openly discussed, but the act of packing belongings and transporting a family to another location for multiple days can be an extreme hardship, not only because of the inconvenience, but also the cost for the evacuees, and the businesses whose customers temporarily live somewhere else or avoid the area. It would not surprise me if an aggressive attorney recruited evacuees who want to sue to recover their costs, claiming the fire could have or should have been suppressed before it grew large.

Funding the federal fire agencies and managing them so that they CAN and WILL as a matter of policy attack new fires aggressively, becomes increasingly important as firefighters are battling multiple megafires each year.

They need to have the technology that will enable them to fight their enemy more efficiently and safely. Drones can provide real time information about the behavior and location of fires. The small aircraft can also serve as radio repeaters for voice communication and location trackers for firefighting resources. These safety-related concepts can help to provide the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety — knowing the real time location of the fire and firefighters.

Aerial firefighting resources, including helicopters and air tankers, are most effective when used during the first hour of a new fire. In order to have them reliably available for initial attack the U.S. Forest Service should contract for or operate 40 large or very large air tankers on exclusive use (EU) contracts. And instead of reducing the number of Type 1 helicopters on EU contracts from 34 to 28 as was done this year, there should be at least 45.

(Update at 10:22 p.m MDT September 8, 2017:  The USA Today has an article about the USFS budget, including quotes from the Secretary of Agriculture and … the article above.)

Senate hearing about tech in wildland firefighting

We obtained a better version of the video of a key 6-minute portion of the hearing about tracking firefighters and the fire.

Last week we reported on the August 3 hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources where 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.

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

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 better version of the 6-minute video below. If the video does not play, here’s another source for it.

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.