Bill to provide real-time location of fires and firefighters sent to the President

The legislation passed both the House and the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support

firefighter radio White Draw Fire
A firefighter on the White Draw Fire uses a radio to coordinate with other firefighters. July 29, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A bill that directs the federal land management agencies to begin implementing a system that would enhance the situational awareness of wildland firefighters has passed both the House and the Senate and is awaiting the signature of the President.

On February 12 the Senate passed the Natural Resources Management Act with a vote of 92 to 8, and yesterday the House passed it 363 to 62.

The bill also includes numerous other actions related to public lands including creating more than 1.3 million acres of wilderness out West, adding three national park units, and expanding eight others.

If the bill passes and is actually implemented by the federal land management agencies it would generate progress toward what we have called the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety, knowing the real time location of a fire and the resources assigned. Too many firefighters have been killed when the exact location of one or both of these critical aspects of situational awareness were unknown. Recent examples with a total of 24 line of duty deaths were on the Yarnell Hill and Esperanza Fires.

The technology to monitor in real time a fire and firefighting resources has existed for years. Various systems are being used already by a few state and local agencies. The military does it for their war fighters, monitoring the enemy and their own forces. If implemented on fires, it will save lives.

Firefighters lives are as important as soldiers.

“I am proud that our Public Lands package passed the House yesterday and that we were able to include in it Senator Cantwell and Senator Gardner’s seminal bill to better equip our firefighters”, said Senator Joe Manchin, Ranking Member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “It is plain to see that wildfires are getting worse not better, and I want to ensure these brave men and women have access to the tools available that will keep them safe, as they work to keep us safe.”

The key points, below, in the legislation have requirements for the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture. The completion dates will be established from the time the legislation is signed.

    • Establish a research, development, and testing program, or expand an applicable existing program, to assess unmanned aircraft system technologies, including optionally piloted aircraft, across the full range of wildland fire management operations. (within 180 days)
    • Develop consistent protocols and plans for the use on wildland fires of unmanned aircraft system technologies, including for the development of real-time maps of the location of wildland fires. (within 180 days)
    • Develop and operate a tracking system to remotely locate the positions of fire resources, including, at a minimum, any fire resources assigned to Federal Type 1 wildland fire incident management teams. (within 2 years)  According to a press release by Senator Maria Cantwell, by the 2021 fire season, all firefighting crews – regardless of whether they are federal, state, or local – working on large wildfires will be equipped with GPS locators.
    • Establish a system to track and monitor decisions made by state and federal wildland firefighting agencies to flag unusual costs, and those that endanger firefighters or deviate from an applicable fire management plan. (no time requirement)
    • Assign air quality resource advisors to Type 1 incidents managing a fire on federal land. (no time requirement)
    • Establish a system to collect data on firefighter injuries that were treated by a doctor, and all deaths during the Work Capacity Test, vehicle crashes, and aircraft accidents. (no time requirement)
    • The two Secretaries will work with NASA to establish a “Rapid Response Erosion Database” and maps that would make it possible to evaluate changes in land cover and soil properties caused by wildland fires. (no time requirement)
    • The two Secretaries, NASA, the Secretary of Energy, and the National Laboratories shall establish and maintain a system to predict the locations of future wildfires for fire-prone areas of the United States. (no time requirement)

The bill does not appropriate any additional funding to implement the real-time tracking provision. A study by the Congressional Budget Office concluded that the estimated $8 million cost is “insignificant” in the overall billions of dollars spent on wildland fire. Discussions behind the scenes in Washington are centered around small tracking devices being included in kits available from the wildland fire warehouse system which can be ordered by incident management teams the same way they order radio kits. The devices could then be distributed to personnel and other resources on fires. The newer Bendix-King radios used by firefighters already have GPS receivers which could be used to provide location data in a tracking system.

Now the question becomes, will the federal land management agencies actually implement the program to track the real-time location of fires and firefighters, or will they slow-walk it into oblivion like the Congressional orders to purchase a new air tanker, convert seven HC-130H Coast Guard aircraft into air tankers, and the repeated requests from the GAO and Inspector General to provide data about the effectiveness of firefighting aircraft?


(UPDATE February 28, 2019)

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+

5 thoughts on “Bill to provide real-time location of fires and firefighters sent to the President”

  1. I applaud this piece of legislation and it is nice to see the strong bi-partisan support. And, it will take some “systems infrastructure” including new science, technology and information management to make this work correctly. Yet, once again, no new funding is provided for. Arguably, one could say, let’s just take the funds from one-half of a shift of fire fighting time, and that should do it. And, they would be right.

    But, there is a more critical issue here. That is, “do this from within your current program.” Like the recent Executive Order regarding forest management. The good news, an EO was developed and signed. The bad news, and a terrific opportunity lost, was the EO that was eventually signed has no teeth and there are no additional funds available to make a real difference in its deployment. The EO that was signed, includes “…The Secretary of the Interior shall review the Secretary’s 2019 budget justifications and give all due consideration to establishing the following objectives for 2019. Further, it includes the words “as feasible and appropriate in light of those budget justifications.” As we all know, this is code for “do this EO from within your current budget.”

    The reality is, unless there is an “aggressive forest management [campaign] to ensure effective fire management”, nothing will change. Yes, knowing information on a real-time basis is important and useful; clearly. But the primary goal must be to reduce large scale, destructive wildfires that destroy lives, property and entire communities. And, this cannot be done “from within available funds.”

    By my estimate, the Forest Service alone is -$2.2 billion per year [for at least 5-7 years] shy of realizing an aggressive forest management program that includes reasonable timber harvesting, thinning, biomass uses [i.e., production of cellulose nanomaterials; advanced composites for building construction; advanced wood for energy (torrefied wood)] with cost-effective market development and expansion], and a greatly expanded effort in hazardous fuel removals. To overstate the obvious, when you are short, it sure does not help to keep adding unfunded actions — like this important fire information system and of course, a properly written and deployable Executive Order.

    While I am happy to see our Congress is beginning to acknowledge these critical land conservation concerns, they also must recognize that decades of shifting funds away from management activities to fire suppression have rendered a huge gap in the ability of land conservation agencies to carry out cohesive, comprehensive programs. Even at an “insignificant” $ 8 million [the estimated cost of the fire information system called for in the passed legislation], it is time to start filling the funding gap.

    The management of America’s forests along a rural to urban land gradient is THE conservation issue of our time. It’s a safety issue. It’s a health issue. It’s a security issue. It’s a community stability issue.

    Now is the time to begin filling the funding gaps and enable our forests to become an effective part of our lives and a key piece of our security infrastructure once again.

    Very respectfully,

    /s/ Michael T. Rains

  2. Knowing where firefighters are will not prevent bad decisions or misinformed calculations. Knowing where firefighters are will not guarantee better or improved communications. Knowing where firefighters are does not translate into Fire Orders being followed or 18 Watchouts being mitigated. I feel there are some good points, many of which are not emphasized by bold print, to this bill. I just don’t think it will generate the outcome that was used to sell it.
    As for $8 million being insignificant – tell that to the units that have to deny training because of travel costs, tell that to the units that are only able to pick up 3 instead of 5 seasonal firefighters because of lack of funding, tell that to the units that can’t implement hazardous fuels reduction projects because they didn’t get funded, tell that to the units that can’t help with relocation costs to remote stations because it’s not in the budget and are having a difficult time filling much needed permanent positions.
    I don’t have the answers but I do feel we should be more transparent with the decisions we make and the implications involved and consequences of their implementation. The game at the policy level looks much different than the game played on the ground.

  3. To me this looks like a honeypot for contractors.

    Land Management Agencies are already having a hard time Fielding competent Radio Techs on fires. Agencies might have to create special division to implement and care for the equipment, or rely on specialized contractors. Might be a problem with the downsizing taking place.

    Mention of using Newer Bendix King Radios would require them to be used in Digital Mode which introduces more variables into Incident Communications. There are reasons Fire has not went Digital yet, the radios have been P25 capable for a long time.

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