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