“Game changing” device to enhance situational awareness for firefighters?

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has donated $225,000 worth of situational awareness equipment to the Prescott, Arizona Fire Department. The 19 firefighters that died on the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, 2013 were members of the department’s Granite Mountain Hotshots. It is likely that if the fire’s chain of command knew that the crew had left a safe area and decided to hike through unburned brush, they would not have been overrun by the fire.

DARPA, created in 1958, can claim credit for ARPANET (earliest predecessor of the Internet), the Global Positioning System, breakthroughs in driverless vehicles, and many other innovations. Currently they are working on technologies that would enable us to fly anywhere on the planet in a single hour, grow vaccines in plants to protect against pandemics, and build a robot that runs faster than a cheetah.

The Daily Courier has an article that spells out some of the features of the system donated to the Prescott FD. Here is an excerpt:

Several portable electronic networking devices can be placed on mountaintops or in planes to connect firefighters with a self-contained mobile 4G network in remote locations. The entire network is called MANET for Mobile Ad-hoc Network.

For example, he can use the tablet to calculate the distance to a safety zone and how long it might take to get there based on the terrain. While the time calculation doesn’t include vegetation, a firefighter still can look at real-time images of the vegetation and terrain.

One firefighter can hike an escape route and then transmit that route to other firefighters, Keith added.

Incident command officers can use the system’s video screens to display the exact locations of firefighters wearing the kits. And firefighters facing an emergency can override others on the radio system to announce their situation.

Firefighters on the ground access the same video feeds as the supervisors. They can zoom in on their location, then zoom out to gain situational awareness. They have access to the Internet and its weather information. Fire managers can add the locations of the fire perimeter, spot fires and safety zones on the maps for all to see. Map layers include terrain, roads and structures. The system can even tell when firefighters are about to go out of the range of communication.

“This is game-changing technology,” Kluckhuhn said. “What you are seeing now didn’t exist a year ago.”

DARPA may not have known that the Prescott Fire Department no longer has a hotshot crew and they have no plans to rebuild Granite Mountain, so we hope Prescott can find a use for the $225,000 worth of situational awareness equipment. Perhaps they will donate it to an organization that deploys wildland firefighters every day.

The software that runs the system, called Fireline Advanced Situational Awareness Handheld (FLASH) was designed specifically by DARPA for wildland firefighting. The government now owns the software.

The hardware is expensive, about $9,000 for each firefighter kit, so there’s little chance that anyone outside of the military will be purchasing the equipment. The United States places a higher priority on spending $1.57 trillion on adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq than in protecting our own homeland from wildfires.

But at least this demonstrates that the technology is available. Maybe a scaled-down version with fewer bell and whistles can be developed that the land management agencies will be willing to spend money on.

A step toward the Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety?

We have written several times about the Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety. As I envision it, the system would enable radios carried by firefighters and in their vehicles to transmit their location in real time which would then show up on a remote display (on anything from a cell phone or a 7″ tablet, up to a laptop computer) that would be monitored by a Safety Officer, Branch Director, Ops Chief, or Division Supervisor. The display would also show the real time location of the fire. Knowing either of these in real time would enhance the safety of firefighters. Knowing both is the Holy Grail.

Since 2006 at least 24 wildland firefighters have been killed whose deaths probably could have been prevented if their supervisors had known in real time the location of the firefighters and the fire. Those fatalities occurred on the Yarnell Hill and Esperanza Fires. If we go back through entrapments over the last several decades, we would probably find many others that fall into the same category.

How many more firefighters will we mourn before the Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety is available and deployed?

Next-generation Incident Command System

A system we wrote about in February has a great deal of potential to be a Holy Grail solution and is already being used by many emergency services organizations, including CAL FIRE. We were told in February by people closely associated with the project that the U.S. Forest Service has shown no interest in the system.

It has the unfortunate name “Next-Generation Incident Command System (NICS), but it is not a new Incident Command system; it is hardware and software. The developers describe it as “a mobile web-based command and control environment for dynamically escalating incidents from first alarm to extreme-scale that facilitates collaboration across [multiple] levels of preparedness, planning, response, and recovery for all-risk/all-hazard events.” It is a combination of tools, technologies, and an innovative concept of operations for emergency response.

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Jeff

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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.

9 thoughts on ““Game changing” device to enhance situational awareness for firefighters?”

  1. Dear Mr. Gabbert:
    In your blurb/article up above, you stated regarding the Yarnell HIll Fire and the Granite Mountain Hotshots that “It is likely that if the fire’s chain of command knew that the crew had left a safe area and decided to hike through unburned brush, they would not have been overrun by the fire.”

    Could you please explain how you think the overhead knowing exactly where GM was as they were descending into the valley where they ultimately died likely would have prevented the 19 from being overrun by the fire? I am not sure I disagree with you – I just want to understand what you are thinking!

    Thank you!
    – A Loyal Reader

    1. A legitimate question, Loyal. One that I answered on November 12, 2013 in a reply to someone’s comment to this article. Here is what I wrote then:


      You are entitled to you own opinions, but not your own facts. You said:

      I’m just not seeing this. At Esperanza, the firefighters were right where their supervisor had left them.


      The missing information had to do with sudden changes in fire direction and/or ROS and/or intensity. Near as I can tell, at the instant those things changed there was already insufficient reaction time to change outcomes — even assuming that your omniscient remote safety monitor could break into high-tempo comms and ops with some new and better plan.

      The facts are that on the Esperanza Fire, 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. For some reason the crew decided to defend the house, setting up hose lays and a portable pump.

      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, it is likely that the engine crew would have been directed to go to the safety zone as instructed earlier by Branch II.

      You also said:

      At Yarnell Hill, their supervisor was not watching icons of them dying on his iPad “in real time” — he was there with them, doing it.

      The person that was supervising the 19 firefighters that died on the Yarnell Hill Fire was the Operations Section Chief. In the report on page 22, he tells the crew, Granite Mountain Hotshots, to “hunker and be safe”, which usually means find a safe spot and stay there. On page 27 Ops tells ASM2 about the crew, “They’re in a good place. They’re safe…”

      The Blue Ridge Hotshots thought Granite Mountain was walking north to a ranch house safety zone north of their location. OPS thought the crew was safely in the black. He did not know the 19 firefighters were walking in the green toward a ranch south of their location. If Ops or a Safety Officer with access to the location of all fire resources had known the crew’s location as they first began their fatal trek, it is likely the entrapment could have been prevented.

      The Holy Grail, as I envision it, would enable radios carried by firefighters to transmit their location in real time which would then show up on a remote display (anything from a cell phone or a 7″ tablet, up to a laptop computer) that would be monitored by a Safety Officer, Branch Director, Ops Chief, Branch Director, or Division Supervisor. The display would also show the real time location of the fire. Knowing either of these in real time would enhance the safety of firefighters. Knowing both is even better.

      Luddites who oppose technology and want everything to remain the same will never be in favor of this concept. I understand that, and recognize that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But not their own facts.

  2. We had technology in 2013 that we didn’t dream about in 1994, like cell phones, cameras, weather meters, etc. But we still killed more people on one fire in 2013 than we did on one fire in 1994. What were they using their technology for? Getting Google Maps, calling Ops, getting weather forecasts? No, sending photos and texts to their girlfriends! Technology isn’t the answer. Structural firefighters have better safety gear and go to fewer fires than 20 years ago, but are dying at higher rates. I would go so far as to say that technology just might be the problem, rather than the solution. (ie., people taking more risk because their hi-tech equipment will save them).

  3. Changing to an adaptive culture that integrates usefull technologies in a timely manner is the key to making our profession safer. The tools exist, it’s a matter of ensuring that those tools reach the ground.

  4. The technology to track in real-time has been available and reasonably affordable for several years via radio (Infinity GPS Mics), satellite (DeLorme InReach), and now cellular networks (Collector for ArcGIS).

    It is the culture and operational guidelines that need to adapt – and the loved ones of firefighters are getting impatient!

  5. The cost of these wars far exceed the 1.57 trillion mentioned in this article. That’s a couple years old number for just the military budget. http://costsofwar.org gives an itemized list that grows to 4 trillion. What was gained by all of this? How well equipped could our firefighters who fight a real war here on our soil against an enemy (fire)that wants to kill them, and an enemy that destroys thousands of homes and businesses each year? How much of our forest systems could be be turned back to a more fire sustainable state? (Wall Street Journal says 4-6 trillion dollars will have been spent down the road: “The VA is still paying benefits to 16 widows and children of veterans from the 1898 Spanish-American War. The last U.S. World War I veteran died in 2011. But 4,038 widows, sons and daughters get monthly VA pension or other payments. The government’s annual tab for surviving family from those long-ago wars comes to $16.5 million. Spouses, parents and children of deceased veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan received $6.7 billion in the 2013 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. Payments are based on financial need, any disabilities, and whether the veteran’s death was tied to military service.
    Those payments don’t include the costs of fighting or caring for the veterans themselves. A Harvard University study last year projected the final bill for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars would hit $4 trillion to $6 trillion in the coming decades.”)

  6. There’s still a hotshot crew there, just not with PFD. Seems a logical place to re-donate?

  7. I think I have posted in the past that ham radio uses a technology called APRS to maintain realtime locations of anyone carrying a handheld radio with a small tracker device attached. If the appropriate digipeater is set up locally, no connection to the internet is required for local position information. Locations are shown on stand-alone maps. Our local club uses this to track bikers on bike events, runners in a couple of long-distance races and searches when called out by the Sheriff’s office SAR team. The required technology is available and the cost is certainly reasonable. The obstacle is willingness to adopt by agencies. Google APRS for way more information than I can repeat here.

  8. I’m hopeful that this will get some development time and money, and will eventually become something we can use. I’m thinking how awkward a lot of other technologies were when they first appeared for fire use – radios, cell phones, GPS units, computers (iPads and other tablets) heck, even chainsaws – were all too big and awkward for realistic use initially. I’m hopeful that there’s enough interest in this to push development towards something that’s actually usable.

    Ten years ago I would have laughed at things you can do with an iPad or even a smartphone today. I’ve had guys on my crew forget maps and GPS units before an IA, and be able to use Google Maps on a smartphone to get a lat/long and a location name. Not recommended, but something I didn’t even dream was possible a decade ago. Hopefully this is just a first step toward something better.


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