Legislation introduced to acquire system to track location of state firefighters in Washington

Granite Mountain Hotshots

Photo above: 19 white hearses brought the Granite Mountain Hotshots back to Prescott, Arizona, July 7, 2013. They were killed after being overrun by the Yarnell Hill Fire. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A bill introduced in the Washington state legislature would provide for state employed firefighters a system that would track their location. Knowing where firefighters are while working on a rapidly spreading fire is crucial to ensuring their safety, and is half of what we have called Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety. The other half is knowing the real time location of the fire relative to the personnel. If a Division Supervisor, Operations Section Chief, or Safety Officer is monitoring this information they could potentially warn firefighters that their present position is in danger when the fire begins to spread in their direction. A system like this might have saved 24 lives on the 2013 Yarnell Hill and 2006 Esperanza Fires. In both cases the firefighters and their supervisors did not have a clear understanding of where the fire and the firefighters were.

In a January 18 article about how to reduce the number of fatalities on wildland fires, we wrote:

When you think about it, it’s crazy that we sometimes send firefighters into a dangerous environment without knowing these two very basic things.

Below is a section from House Bill 2924 as introduced in the Washington State Legislature on January 27, 2016, sponsored by six lawmakers:

…Require all fire suppression equipment and personnel in its employ or direction to be outfitted with an electronic monitoring device that utilizes global positioning system technology to protect the safety of wildland firefighters…

The Seattle Times wrote about the proposed legislation. Here is an excerpt:

…DNR has done some early research on GPS, according to Bob Johnson, the agency’s wildfire-division manager. Setting up a system could cost $1.5 million, Johnson told lawmakers.

“Improving safety for our firefighters is paramount and we’d view this technology … as a viable supplement to existing safety measures,” wrote Mary Verner, DNR’s deputy supervisor for resource protection. “Though, it, like many technologies, does have its limitations.”

Challenges, benefits

GPS locaters are used by various departments and agencies around the country, according to Triplett.

But there aren’t yet national standards for GPS systems, so when firefighters come from different agencies or another state to fight large blazes, they may not have equipment that works together, according to Triplett.

Steve Pollock, chief regional fire coordinator for the Texas A&M Fire Service, said it took about three years to develop that agency’s GPS system. When it goes live in July, it will be able to track more than 200 bulldozers, fire engines and coordinating vehicles, he said…

There needs to be leadership, nationally, to develop standards for firefighter tracking systems so that the devices used by different agencies are compatible and interoperable. This should be the duty of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, National Association of State Foresters, U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management.

If individual state and local organizations spend millions on stand-alone systems that can’t be used outside their jurisdictions it will be FUBAR. Leadership is needed. Today.

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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.

4 thoughts on “Legislation introduced to acquire system to track location of state firefighters in Washington”

  1. Bill

    I have to agree with you. National leadership is needed on this issue to insure GPS tracking protocols/equipment are compatible between agencies. Having a tracking system that only works on one jurisdiction is not workable. Agencies also need to remember that systems that rely on complex technology are subject to failure at any given time and redundancy is needed. A system like US National Grid (USNG) would solve many of the issues of tracking firefighters and fire movement across the landscape and could simply be done on a paper map. USNG has already been developed and tested and it’s free except for some on the job training that would be needed to get folks up to speed.

  2. At first glance, this sounds like a reasonable proposal: Washington DNR will get $1.5 million up-front to get GPS units for all of their personnel, who can then be tracked on wildfires. But looking deeper, there are other coonsiderations.
    Like almost all westen States, WA-DNR has coop agreements with the 5 Federal Agencies that fight wildfires (USFS, BIA, NPS, FWS and BLM), and often work on the others fires. In addition, there are numerous County and Volunteer departments that are involved on a frequent basis with WA-DNR fires. How/where do all of those folks get GPS units, and plugged into the dispatch system?
    I can see dispatch being overwhelmed, especially in a multi-fire, multi-juristictional lightning bust with dozens of fires and innumerable resources arriving from all over, including the North Cascades SJ base.
    There are definitely possibilities for GPS tracking systems on wildfires, but all of the implications should be thought through and addressed before rushing head-long into a GPS buying program at the State level.

    1. I agree. So there must be some planning, coordination, and leadership at the interstate and federal level. Tracking systems are going to be purchased, and have been purchased, whether this occurs or not. They probably will not be interoperable. If the leaders in the NWCG and firefighting agencies keep ignoring this reality, it will become FUBAR.

      Agencies should not rush into buying multi-million dollar systems that will not work with the one their neighbors use. I hate to say it, but they should wait until standards are developed, even though in the interim their firefighters may sometimes be working in dangerous areas without their supervisors knowing where they are and the real time location of the fire.

      1. Bill

        Perhaps someone or some group above NWCG needs to provide leadership, such as the National Fire Protection Association or FEMA. It would seem to me that the search and rescue folks and even structure fire folks might need the same kind of satellite GPS locators. Why not develop a “standard” working with those groups? …easier said the done of course.


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