What is the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety?

Camp Fire Northern California
Firefighters on the night shift at the Camp Fire in Northern California, November 2018. Inciweb photo.

It has been a while since we wrote in detail about what in 2013 we first called the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety.

It is a system that could track in real time the location of firefighters AND the fire, all displayed on one screen. This data should be available in real time to key supervisors and decision makers in the Operations and Planning Sections on fires. Knowing the positions of personnel relative to the fire would be a massive step in improved situational awareness and could reduce the number of firefighters killed on fires. Too often firefighters have been surprised, overrun, and sometimes killed by a rapidly spreading wildfire when they did not know where the fire was and/or their supervisors did not know the correct, actual location of the personnel.

Not everyone on a fire would need to monitor the location data all the time, but at least one person should be given the responsibility to be sure that a rapidly spreading wildfire does not overrun the location of firefighting resources. Darkness, smoke, and terrain can obscure the location of the fire from firefighters on the ground.

A drone orbiting high over the fire far above air tankers and helicopters could use near infrared cameras to see through smoke. A safety officer, for example, could be given the duty of ensuring that firefighters are not surprised and become entrapped by flames. Depending on the size of a fire and its activity it might only take one person to be sure firefighters are in safe positions. More complex or more active fires might need more.

Several times the report on the Mendocino Complex issued last week mentions that firefighters did not know for sure where the fire was. In addition, for a while no one knew where the six firefighters were that had been entrapped and were running from the fire. All six of them had suffered injuries and needed to be rescued. It was quite some time before they were located after searching with trucks and a helicopter.

The locations of firefighters could be provided by the newer Bendix-King radios many firefighters are already using that have built-in GPS receivers. Small devices that could fit in a shirt pocket could do the same thing and be provided by the interagency fire warehouse system, shipped to the fire like radio caches. The data could be sent through an on-the-ground mesh network, device to device, and be relayed to a server by cell phone towers or through a receiver on the drone orbiting the fire and then to a cell tower or satellite.

Ideally a safety officer given this duty would be at the fire and would be familiar with the fuel, topography, and weather. But in a pinch, or perhaps during the very early stages of a fire it could be done by a qualified person anywhere, as long as they had an internet connection.

In addition, it is very important for the Planning and Operations Section Chiefs to know in real time where the fire is so they can better plan and deploy resources to locations where they will be the most effective. Often Incident Action Plans are made using obsolete fire location information. By the time firefighters get to their assignment in the field sometimes it becomes obvious that the fire has moved and the plan, tactics, and strategy have to be changed and resources are relocated. Real time situational intelligence will reduce the lag time for deployment of resources to the locations where they are most needed.

Fire Behavior Analysts that could continuously observe the fire with the available video could make much more accurate, valuable, and timely Fire Behavior Forecasts. The fire spread information that their models develop could be displayed immediately on the map, enabling the Operations Section Chief to make better-informed strategic and tactical decisions. Any firefighters that show up in the predicted growth area could be alerted.

The technology to provide real time personnel and fire location information has existed for years. A number of state and local agencies are already using various versions of the location tracking systems. Putting a drone in the sky with an infrared camera above the firefighting aircraft could be done today. Linking these two sources of information so that they can be displayed on a map can be done. The military does this every day, tracking the location of the enemy and the friendly forces. Firefighters lives are just as valuable as soldiers’.

The five federal land management agencies and the states with significant numbers of wildland firefighters need to implement a Holy Grail system as soon as possible. It can save lives. There is no acceptable excuse for not getting this done. Government officials that drag their feet on this should have trouble sleeping at night.

Some Senators and Congressmen have been mocked for their lack of knowledge about technology, but they are way ahead of the five agencies on this issue. The federal fire directors should be embarrassed that it is literally taking an act of Congress to get them to begin using a Holy Grail system.


And, please don’t say this system that can save lives is not necessary, and that all we have to do is to tell firefighters to follow the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders or the other check lists. The Orders have been around for 62 years. Someone just saying “follow them” will not magically make it happen. That has been said millions of times in the last six decades and still, between 1990 and 2015, an average of 17 wildland firefighters were killed each year. Continuing to do the same thing while expecting different results is not realistic.

I’m not saying the Orders should not be followed. They should be. But continually saying “follow them” has still resulted in too many fatalities. We need to do that, and a lot more.

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. Google+

18 thoughts on “What is the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety?”

  1. goTenna technology can and will save lives. I look forward to one day being their client once I become a FF. It is considerably lower cost than any other technology out there and seems to be a no brainer for many public safety applications. Regardless if there is cell coverage, this is more secure and more immediate than cell data without the risks of the cell network delays. There are many things that can go wrong by relying on the cell network and the internet in mission critical situations. I AGREE during multijurisdiction fires this technology would be an added tool on top of the 10 and 18. Thanks Bill for keeping with it.

  2. Still needs to be one common coordinate system for all operators. The land search & rescue coordinate system is US National Grid, not any of (3) versions of lat/long and not UTM, per NSARC. The lack of gridded maps aids in all geolocation confusion / inefficiency. So, how would one refer to any specific fire location, flareup, spot fire, head fire, person’s position or helispot on the fireground? If maps, paper & electronic, were gridded, simple 6 digits identifies a 100m square. 4 digits a 1 Km square. It has been proven that USNG is easier to say & copy over the radio. This is KISS principle and it exists now but is severely underutilized. The military has used this since 1949. Since 2007 all DoD air assets shall use the coordinate system of the ground operator, which is MGRS (functionally equal to USNG). Having all the technology is great too, but some team will not have it, John Q. Citizen will not have it. So, how can Common Operating Picture truly exist if there is no way to pull data in from sources without the high tech? Well, all readers here are encouraged to try these FREE web apps right now: USNGAPP.org + FindMeSAR.com & web map: bit.ly/USNG-GISsurfer (Menu My Location ON). Why not use these simple free tools now? John Q. Citizen can be told to use them by PIOs off-season and during events. USNG is the language of location. Avenza Maps supports and displays USNG. Also re-review this safety presentation: https://wildfiretoday.com/2015/04/28/additional-lessons-that-could-be-learned-regarding-the-yarnell-hill-fire/ and the original article: bit.ly/362880-2013

  3. Are the Aussies and Canuks using this technology? How do they avoid the fire deaths like we see in the states? I remember talking to a Canadian firefighter and his take was we send people places they would never go. Maybe we need to evaluate fundamentally how we fight fire.

  4. Please permit me to provide a contrarian view to the “holy grail”:
    1: How close is too close? Imagine hearing Ops on Command “The fire is moving rapidly to Div A…” or “Plumas shots, your crewmembers are in jeopardy of being over-run”… What response does this elicit from the recipients? How is it interpreted? Will it be received the same way an IMET or FBAN continually announces at 2 pm to watch out for extreme fire behavior every other day then never develops? Will it be the boy who cries wolf?
    2: How does an Ops or Plans or Safety person interpret distance between the fire and distance between the resource? In steep country, in flat land, the screen shows 2D and only a bright white spot where the fireline is.
    3. How do you communicate the critical information the OPS, PLANS or Safety is seeing and pass it to the appropriate unit and his/her supervisor? How does that person interpret the intel and demonstrate leadership by making decisions knowing they are being watched? An experienced hotshot sup will watch as he/she sits back after an “imminent blowup” that turns out to be no big deal, and then adjust the size of the “grain of salt” that he/she takes with subsequent emergency messages from the person manning the screen.
    4. My last point is the most heartless: I apologize in advance: The true value of the “eye in the sky” system will be to the people sitting in Air Conditioned tents or trailers who can finally get a chance to relive the glory days by directing the footsteps of their younger and more agile counterparts. Each action will be recorded and the mis-steps analyzed both in the classroom and the court room. Finally, when things go wrong just like in the posts just after this, Investigators will be able to see a recorded narrative of events with a god’s eye view as they played out and ask themselves how could this new tragedy have been prevented?

    I think a system as Bill describes is valuable for battlefield operations and critical security surveillance because the enemy is unpredictable and irrational the opposite of wildland fire) and the recordings are protected and not made public. I think the system as described will yield benefits to “arm-chair” safety officers, ops and accident investigators who want actual footage of fireline accidents.

    P.s., I dont know it all, but I have heard that it is a very thin coin that does not have another side.

    1. I’ll offer a non firefighter counterpoint. My experience is in military systems and networks. I heard the same kind of concerns about micro management and arm chair supervision when we were putting network requirements together for military systems. The concerns largely did not pan out. Training and professionalism are the answer.

      The problems you describe are largely the result of a “top down” command system and a “top down” information flow architecture. If time critical information is collected centrally and then later disseminated down the chain of command based on higher up decisions, you’re right. It won’t work.

      If the “Holy Grail” information Bill describes was available on a network accessed by all individuals and units, everyone sees the same picture, then the leaders who are on scene in the field can make timely decisions and take timely necessary actions without waiting for “top down” information. This is a “bottom up” organizational concept and a common network where everyone has access to the same common operating picture. You don’t have to wait for someone higher up to look at a screen and decide to pass you the information. It is available locally.

      I can’t condense 30 years of experience with network and command and control systems in this comment section but my observation is that more networking is better than less networking. Tying all the brains of any outfit together with common information and good C3 always produces better operational results.

      As far as the distinction between battlefields and wildland fire, judging from all the major wildfires around my area over the last 30 years, local civilian deaths from entrapment, and two personal requirements to evacuate, I don’t think wildfires are very predictable either.

  5. Will this “tracking” device squelch the decision making process of engaging when folks are being encouraged or pressured to engage due to cultural demands and the associated human factors that take place in most entrapments and fatalities?
    Remember that most of the “leaders” monitoring such “holy grails” are also the ones placing lines on a map and blessing such tactics and strategies that are often aligned with these tragic events.

  6. I think this is a good idea. But I would expect that the development of such a desirable technology will take much longer and be much more expensive than you suspect. I’d also suspect a very long teething period where the whole firefighting organization, from ICs to crew bosses to individual firefighters learn how to use that new technology, when to trust it and what its limitations are.

    For this program to be successful, there needs to be a large cadre within the wildland firefighting world passionately advocating for the required development of this technology and to help us get over the inevitable setbacks.

    Your infrared-camera-in-a-drone idea is a very good one, but the current limitations of the state of the art are daunting. A very popular thermal camera for drone applications is the FLIR Vue Pro, which costs over $3000 and has a resolution of 640×512 pixels. At that resolution if the camera is 5000 feet above ground level an individual firefighter will be about 1 pixel square. Given the fact that we would be attempting to detect a very small warm object (a firefighter) very close to a possibly very large and very hot object (a fire) I question the feasibility of using such a camera to detect firefighters in an active fire situation. Higher resolution cameras are available, but they are much more expensive, much heavier, and have much larger power budgets as well — all of which necessitates a larger, heavier, and more expensive drone aircraft. And we’d need thousands of drone aircraft to cover an active fire season (plus downtime for maintenance and servicing of the drones, &c). Depending on the endurance and service requirements of the drone aircraft, you might need tens of thousands of them. Which implies a very large organization within the fire bureaucracy dedicated to servicing, deploying, and operating them.

    It is hard to imagine developing and deploying such a technology at scale for less than a billion dollars.

    1. Correct me if I’m wrong but I think the purpose of a drone with infrared camera is not meant to track firefighters, rather, it’s meant to track the fire. Firefighters would be tracked by GPS functions built into their radios or other device. Combined IR, geospatial, and GPS data would tell you where firefighters are in relation to the fire front.

  7. Very good article Bill and great points, Technology cannot solve everything but it can sure help. We also need to start using a much better coordinate system which already exists in the US National Grid system, as Al discussed above. There are big issues with lat/long which have created some real snafus. There are real communications issues with fire behavior observations getting shared between Divisions and with planning section folks and it’s gotten worse over the years. Orbiting drones could be of big help.

  8. Drones high enough for spotting, and making wildland firefighter safe is cool, these morons that endanger the area with drones for news media x and these private groups should be jail, and fined

  9. Fire Orders and personal safety is what I rely on (with the second priority being responsible for my crew). Although I think this idea may be beneficial to a certain extent, everyone is responsible for their own safety.

    1. You mean orders like:
      2. Know what your fire is doing at all times.
      3. Base all actions on current and expected behavior of the fire.

      Basic FFT1 training tells us to know where your crew is at all times.
      I think calling this kind of technology the “Holy Grail” may make some think of it as a panacea, of course, there is no such thing. Knowing what the fire is doing is and where your people are is basic and critical information. How ’bout calling it BIFFS (Basic Information for Firefighter Safety).

  10. As a OSC2 and ICT3 on an active BLM district, this type of technology would be better suited in an emerging incident, 5,000 acres before I can even get there, type of fire. But it’s not the 5 agency trucks I worry about, it’s the 20+ VFD, RFPA, and other non producers they bring that I worry about. So therefore this type of technology would be useless in that situation.

    As a OSC2 who has had a scan eagle UAS on incident, it was neat, but guess where that big flat screen TV was setup… ICP. Guess where I was able to gather real SA… the field. Bridging that gap could aid as an additional tool, but I argue it’s not THE end all, holy grail.

  11. I think it’s un-informed that technology will save fire fighter lives. As a firefighter who’s getting close to hanging up the boots with experience in just about every type of federal crew except being a lawn dart and holding leadership positions on the crews( WFM Supt, Helitack foreman, Fire Ops specialist) it occurs to me that bad decisions by firefighters lead to firefighter injuries and fatalities. All the technology in the world won’t prevent bad decisions. Yes technological advances have led to better situational awareness, but guess what…. no matter how good the tech is or how good firefighters SA is decisions based on this must still be made in a safe and professional manner. I agree with one of the previous posts saying that being able to track firefighters wont prevent fatalities. GM was in a good spot, they made a poor decision to leave their safety zone and paid the consequences… Brutal truth. If the wildland fire community is going to go with technological advances as ” The Holy Grail” why give incidents managed by Type 1 IMT’s the upgrade tech first ? Shouldn’t the technology go to districts to use on emerging incidents, that’s where most of the chaos is occurring. Decisions during IA are most frequently made without all the best intelligence… the technological advances could help but let’s think about it. I’ve worked in places that VFD’s radios weren’t compatible with Federal radio systems, different frequencies etc… heck some VFD’s couldn’t talk to the paid departments or other VFD’s in their same county. It’s not technology or improved SA that’s going to be the holy grail of wildland fire… It has to be good solid decision making. Fires don’t kill firefighter… bad firefighter decisions kill firefighters

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