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.

Klamath County, Oregon develops system for tracking firefighters and mapping structure information

Half of our Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety is for firefighters and their supervisors to know the real time location of firefighting resources working on an incident. The other half is to know the real time location of the fire. These two pieces of information would greatly enhance the situation awareness and safety of the personnel. Not knowing this information has led to dozens of firefighter fatalities.

Keno, Oregon has spearheaded the development of a system that takes care of the the first half of the Holy Grail — showing the location of firefighters on a map. This is one of several systems nationwide that is being used by local organizations in the United States. Theirs goes far beyond that, however, and can display detailed information about structures.

Gene Rogers helped put the system together which has grown to include Klamath County. He sent us this description.

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Klamath County Situation Analyst (KCSA) and Situation Analyst Field Tool (SAFT)

Decades of collaboration and experience with incident management challenges formed the premise of the goals and objectives developed by a rural fire chief, a retired federal fire manager turned consultant, and a state district forester. Brainstorming sessions often focused on a theme of what would make emergency management more efficient. The need for current information on emerging incidents that could be easily shared across the spectrum of cooperators was a goal. Their vision was to collect incident information at initial response that could be easily passed on as the incident evolved to extended response and ultimately to an IMT (Incident Management Team). Another goal was to minimize repetition, redundancy and confusion throughout any incident.  Applicability to any incident; structure fire, wildland fire, rescue, flood, earthquake, weather event, was a fundamental objective. Traditional paper maps and hand written notes contain information not readily shared with incoming responders. KCSA and SAFT are applications to enhance the sharing of information and greatly increase public and responder safety. These applications offer real-time, shareable, interoperable information on a common operating platform.

Following the completion of the Keno, Oregon Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) in 2003 attention was turned to gathering structure and parcel fuels data for Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) properties. In 2006 grant funds were used to recruit and train summer interns to collect the data on 10,000 Klamath County WUI residential properties.

Klamath County, Oregon map
Klamath County, Oregon, outlined in red.

Current technology allowed for data collection on handheld data recorders, GPS units, and digital cameras. The data was assembled using commercial software from RedZone Software. Individual reports on each WUI structure and parcel included construction attributes (roof, siding, etc.), wildland fuel conditions, a photo of the structure and a composite risk score. The collected data was distributed to responding districts and agencies on compact discs and hard copy maps. The data and resultant hazard ratings were used in the 2007 Klamath County CWPP. The information was valuable but the project managers also wanted technology that allowed rapid sharing of data across the emerging technology of smart phones, tablet computers, and laptops.

By 2013 the project steering committee had selected Intterra, a company specializing in geospatial information technologies, to integrate the Klamath County structure survey data, collection process, and other information into a modified version of their Situation Analyst named KCSA. Additional capabilities requested included Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL), real-time incident mapping on touch screen devices, structure pre-plan data collection, and a property owner feedback process. The Yarnell Hill Fire of June 2013 emphasized the need for managers to know the location of incident resources. KCSA and SAFT incorporate the capability to track resources by cell phone GPS or commercial GPS tracking devices on vehicles and personnel. The 2016 Klamath County CWPP update discusses the uses of KCSA and SAFT.

Firefighting resources mapped
Firefighting resources show up on the display.

KCSA is an application for connected devices that offers the full array of system capabilities. SAFT is an application that can be downloaded to mobile devices (from the App Store or Google Play). SAFT can be used whether or not the device is connected to the internet. Mapping, collected data, and pictures can be shared to users of KCSA when the device is connected. Example: field data can be collected in terrain without connectivity, then uploaded to the KCSA system when connectivity is achieved. Use of either application requires a Login ID and Password. Permissions to various capabilities are assigned when the user profile is established. This can be done pre-incident locally or at an incident when checking in arriving resources.

Permissions to use features in the applications relate to specific users and their level of qualification on incidents. For example: a Field Observer (FOBS) cannot edit the map prepared by someone with Operations permissions (OSC1/OSC2, OPBD, DIVS). Other capabilities relate to specific tasks. The Pre Plans (PP) module allows structure fire departments to map buildings with key information critical to their fire and rescue work. The available workspaces are tailored to the needs of that functional area, e.g., Plans or Public Information Officer.

The Risk module compiles the wildfire risk survey data for structures and parcels in the surveyed data. An onsite survey for a new structure and parcel can be completed in minutes. This is particularly useful for structure protection and evacuation planning in areas where surveys have not already been completed.  evacuation zone identification

Evac area summary
Summary of the circled area.

Once surveyed, the user can circle the structures of concern and produce a map and address list to pass to Law Enforcement for evacuation. This takes seconds when the structures have been previously surveyed. Home symbol and color correspond to assigned risk score and rating adjective.  Homeowners can view their risk score at www.kcrsg.org.

Use of the applications is spreading in the emergency management organizations of Oregon.  The Oregon State Fire Marshal (OSFM) is supporting the use of the applications by OSFM Incident Management Teams. KCSA was used on wildfires in the southeast states in 2016. Klamath County fire districts, Oregon Department of Forestry, and federal wildland fire agencies are currently using the software.  Use of the applications is spreading into several other counties in Oregon. Grant monies funded the development of the applications.  Future expenses will be nominal and shared proportionally by users for the cost of the hosting server.  The software is free of charge.

This is a brief discussion of the development and capabilities of the KCSA and SAFT applications. Those interested in further information about Situation Analyst should contact Intterra at info@intterragroup.com.  Questions about the use of KCSA and SAFT can be sent to firechief@kenofire.com.

Reconvene a task force

Above:  Sage Fire, December 20, 2016. Photo by Ventura County Fire Department.

After studying 16 wildfires that killed firefighters between 1937 and 1956 a task force commissioned by USDA Forest Service Chief Richard E. McArdle developed a list of 10 Standard Firefighting Orders. It was hoped that if followed, it would reduce the the number of fatalities.

10 standard firefighting orders

I was reminded of two of those orders when I saw the information Ventura County Fire Department was providing, not only to their firefighters, but to the public during a wildfire that eventually burned 61 acres in a southern California community. A map distributed on Twitter and Facebook showed the approximate location of a fire that was threatening dozens of homes. It also had icons marking the location of firefighting resources.

map firefighters locations
Map of the Sage Fire showing the location of firefighting resources. Ventura County Fire Department.

The near-real time information about the location of both the fire AND firefighters, which I call the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety, relates to numbers 2 and 9:

2. Know what your fire is doing at all times.
9. Maintain control of your forces at all times.

We have written about this before, starting in October, 2013. Not knowing the location of the fire and firefighters 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.

Technology has changed in extraordinary ways since the 10 orders were written in the 1950s, but many of the agencies responsible for fighting wildland fires are far to slow to adopt new procedures that could save lives.

As a politician recently in the news would say, this is “sad”.

The current U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell needs to reconvene a task force. Since the 1950s methods have been developed that can reduce the number of fatalities — to work toward the Holy Grail. It is time to implement them.

Continue reading “Reconvene a task force”

Colorado researching methods for transmitting near real-time fire information to firefighters

Above: One of Colorado’s two Pilatus PC-12 “Multi-mission Aircraft” at McClellan Air Field, March 23, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Colorado’s Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting is requesting information from vendors who could supply equipment that would transmit from aircraft near real-time information about wildfires directly to firefighters on the ground.

The state’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control recently acquired two Pilatus PC-12 Multi-Mission Aircraft. Sensors on the planes can detect and map the location of fires and transmit near real-time spatial data, still images, and short video clips to the Colorado Wildfire Information Management System (CO-WIMS), a web-based situational awareness platform. Fire managers can log into CO-WIMS to view fire perimeters and the other data generated by the aircraft. Firefighters on the ground who have access to the system can view the information as long as they have a good 4G cellular connection. However, many remote areas do not have cellular service.

Colorado’s Request for Information is asking for descriptions and prices of systems that could get this data directly into the hands of firefighters actively engaged in suppressing a fire. Responses are due by June 13, 2016.

This could supply half of the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety, providing to firefighters near real-time information about the location of a fire. The other half is near real-time information about the location of firefighters.

Colorado's Pilatus PC-12 "Multi-mission Aircraft"
Guy Jones, one of the pilots for Colorado’s Pilatus PC-12 “Multi-mission Aircraft”, explains the sensing capabilities of the aircraft’s equipment at McClellan Air Field, March 23, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bean.

Congress takes another tentative step toward developing a wildland fire bill

The Senators hope the public will give them input on the proposal.

Five U.S. Senators are supporting a concept for a bill, or as they call it, a “discussion draft”, that would affect wildland firefighting. The document is being floated as a trial balloon to solicit input. If the draft ever becomes a proposed bill, it will no doubt look different in its final form, with some provisions added and others removed.

“In an effort to move the discussion forward, we are asking for feedback on a diverse set of ideas to tackle the challenges of catastrophic wildfires,” said Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the panel’s top Democrat. “While not perfect, we are working to drive the discussion toward consensus and a 21st century management strategy.”

Fire Funding

Named the “Wildfire Budgeting, Response, and Forest Management Act of 2016”, it would begin by fixing the inadequate funding of suppressing wildfires, ending the cumbersome practice of having to borrow funds from non-fire accounts to pay for suppression costs. This issue has been cussed and discussed ad infinitum for years with broad bipartisan support, but Congress has failed to take any meaningful action on the problem.

The Holy Grail

One issue that we have written about many times and called the “Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety”, is addressed. Our concept is to provide two pieces of real time information to the management team or supervisors on a wildfire: the location of the fire and the location of firefighters.

The discussion draft addresses the fire’s location by requiring that Federal and State wildland firefighting agencies develop, by March 1, 2018, “protocols and plans for the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) … to detect spot fires, assess fire behavior, develop tactical and strategic firefighting plans, position crews, and enhance firefighters’ safety”. And it mentions an “ortho rectified map”. Sadly, it does not specifically require that a system be implemented that will provide the information in real or near-real time, but if you’re going to hit every item on that list, it pretty much has to be real time data, or close to it.

The other half of the Holy Grail, the location of firefighters, is also covered. By March 1, 2018 the Departments of Interior and Agriculture “shall jointly develop and operate a tracking system to remotely locate the positions of fire crews assigned to Federal Type 1 Wildland Fire Incident Management Teams”. Their locations would be depicted on an ortho rectified map developed by the UAS.

Unified system for carding firefighting aircraft

There would be a single system, by March 1, 2018, “for providing credentials to all Federal and State-certified aircraft, personnel (including pilots and maintenance personnel), and firefighting support equipment for fires on Federal land and for firefighting operations conducted by, or in cooperation with, Federal agencies”. Until that system is up and running, all Federal and State wildland firefighting agencies would accept the standards of each other.

Miscellaneous

Other provisions would ease some environmental regulations for certain hazard fuel reduction projects, require an inventory of 452,000 acres of young-growth timber stands on Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, and make any money left over from fire suppression funds at the end of the year available for hazard fuel reduction projects. (If you’re thinking inventorying half a million acres of the Tongass NF has nothing to do with wildland fire, you are correct.)

Supporters

If this discussion draft morphs into actual legislation, more Senators will publicly support it, but for now the list includes Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Senator Ron ‎Wyden (D-OR), Senator Michael Crapo (R-ID), and Senator James Risch (R-ID).

A previous trial balloon

In July of 2015 the Democratic Staff of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources prepared a list of concepts, called a White Paper, that also was a hopeful step toward an actual bill. It had one important provision that is lacking in this latest discussion draft. It would have revised or repealed Public Law 107-203 that was passed in 2002 as a reaction to the ThirtyMile Fire the previous year. That law resulted in a crew boss on the fire being charged with 11 felonies, including four counts of manslaughter. Since then firefighters that witness accidents have been advised to lawyer-up and reveal as little as possible about what they know, reducing the opportunities for learning lessons — possibly resulting in more firefighter fatalities down the road. This law has also led to accident investigations and fatality reports that do not identify the causes, squandering learning opportunities.

The revision or repeal of Public Law 107-203 is very important.

You can read the entire Discussion Draft HERE.

If you have an opinion about what is, or is not in this discussion draft, contact your Senators and/or put your thoughts in a comment below.