Renewed call for the ‘Holy Grail’ of firefighter tracking

A decade ago, the late Bill Gabbert began writing here about the “Holy Grail of Wildland Fire Safety” – the tools, best practices and system for advanced firefighter and fire tracking – and he returned to it often.

In March 2019, one section of Public Law 116–9 (also known as S. 47, the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act), was signed into law that called for “LOCATION SYSTEMS FOR WILDLAND FIREFIGHTERS” within two years – by March, 2021.

Nearly two years past that deadline, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology has adopted this core principle in a report called “Modernizing Wildland Firefighting to Protect Our Firefighters”.

PCAST report - Modernizing Wildland FirefightingAs their letter to the President observes, “Whereas we have a national commitment ensuring that our warfighters are not sent into harm’s way without the best of American science and technology at their disposal, no similar organizational framework exists to protect and empower wildland firefighters.”

Their five recommendations lead off with this problem and an urgent push:

“Recommendation 1: Given the vulnerabilities and shortfalls in wildland firefighter communications, connectivity, and technology interoperability, immediately assess, adapt, and field currently available technologies.”

To support this, their next recommendation calls for cabinet-directed executive authority to “Reverse the current trend of rapidly growing wildfire suppression costs by establishing a joint-agency executive office (hereafter Joint Office) that can accelerate enterprise-level development and deployment of new technologies that enhance situational awareness and initial attack capabilities.”

The recommendation continues that “This Joint Office would serve to advance coordination, streamline authorities, and drive progress in enabling technology adoption across the numerous federal agencies with equities for wildland firefighting science and technology (S&T) within NIFC [National Interagency Fire Center]. It is imperative that the Joint Office leader have Cabinet-delegated decision-making authorities as well as the mandate and budget needed to develop and execute a unified technology roadmap.”

Recommendations 3, 4 and 5 would be led by the proposed Joint Office and serve to unify and expedite the “full operational sequence of wildland firefighting” with current and new technology, with inputs from NIFC, the land management agencies of DOI and USDA, and NOAA, NASA, and the Department of Defense.

While the goals are straightforward the implementation is complex, as indicated in this graphic from the report.

Figure 1. Schematic of key tools and technologies identified in a 2022 assessment by the USFS Wildland Fire Tools and Technology Group. Courtesy of NIFC.

At the NIFC website, a search for the word “safety” produced 641 results. Hits for “technology” totaled 206, “intelligence” 121. “Location-based” yielded 24 results, though most were variations of “allocation.” The most concrete reference is to the 2023 Red Book, where there’s a reference to “Location Systems,” on page 42 of the BLM section:

“The LBS [Location-Based System] Program combines current Global Positioning System (GPS) technologies with BLM fire and aviation preparedness to provide a situational awareness tool by tracking equipment. LBS is incorporated into dispatch and other operating procedures to enhance situational awareness and accountability of WCF 600-class fire equipment. This program meets the intent of S.47 – John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, SEC. 1114. (d) 12 Location Systems for Wildland Firefighters.”

With wholehearted respect for the BLM’s LBS program and the efforts to date, the federal location systems in their entirety seem a far (and hard to track) distance from meeting the intent of the 2019 Dingell act.

This week’s PCAST recommendations seeks to correct the “vulnerabilities and pitfalls” of our current processes and accelerate the urgency toward this decade-long search for the “Holy Grail” of location systems. It’s a race we need to win.



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16 thoughts on “Renewed call for the ‘Holy Grail’ of firefighter tracking”

  1. I wonder how an emphasis on high tech and increased initial attack capabilities dovetails with the expanding use of wildfires to achieve resource benefits?

  2. Applied technology is logical and useful in suppressing wildfires, however I believe the key and emphasis needs to be on fuels pretreatment of forest landscapes. I was out walking a unit this previous Tuesday to determine how to thin the biomass, equipment or physical laborers. Either way the unit must be thinned of biomass fuel to make it both less susceptible to fire starts and resilient if it does burn.

    High technology has not a whit of application to pretreating this unit which is a proxy of the forest landscapes facing us today. Widespread forest thinning is probably the only salvation for our state and federal watersheds and airsheds. My opinion after 35 seasons on the line. Thoughts?

    1. Exactly….dont know what they are teaching in forestry schools today but what you say Tim is how I was taught.
      Manual or mechanized operations ( depending upon slopes) is what going to be needed.

      As one old airtanker pilot told me: Do not let the the costs of airtanker operations overshadow many years of the lack of land management.

      Tim, you know as well as I do and many others here….it’s gonna cost something…i.e time and dinero!

      1. Wally don’t get me started! Since “retiring” and starting my little forestry business in the Firewise sector, I am getting calls for estimates to burn piles on smaller private forest plots. What I am finding is grant funded stick-stacking that is not burnable, piles on steep slopes under reprod, too close together, etc.

        The feds/state foresters are funding feel-good projects to “thin” the fuel and all they are doing is changing the shape of the fuel and making the fuel into untenable Rx’s. The ONLY solution in these cases is chipping the piles once I figure out how to access them, deconstruct them (#@!&%), move them via winching operations, and then chipping/processing.

        My rule is touch the fuel once and process it, be done efficiently and effectively.

        1. Tim,
          As a conservation land manager managing thinning projects to prep Rx burn units, I feel your pain. Like you I’m pushing to handle the biomass as few times as possible. We’ve done the traditional burn piles, but have also begun experimenting with masticators – where we can get them – and are exploring air curtain burners and even portable kilns – but these include additional handling. Given the variety of conditions, no solution is perfect.

          Funding of such work is a whole other conversation!

  3. This tech has existed for years in the military as well as better radios, real time intel, UAS etc….etc….but we’re still using DPHs and sat phones….WTF. So dumb and frustrating, but it shows you how much politicians, and agency talking head REALLY care about this stuff.

  4. This technology already exists.

    The real holy grail is permanent, significant pay raises.

    Increase fuels work and tracking devices won’t help with retention

    1. This technology already exists.


      Before you pounce on that and tell me there’s no cell signal on remote fires, remember that an IMT (T1 anyhow) can order up a portable cell tower or relay for the incident …

      1. No matter what they order, and I’ve seen it happen, if there is no microwave or fiber backhaul for the information to get out of the back-country, the COW is nothing but a bird perch. Ground based systems are NOT the answer for incidents where normal cell coverage is non existant. UAV’s carrying the right equipment can be the answer or Low Earth Satellite PTT radio goes a long way towards meeting fires needs.

  5. There was certainly a time in my career that I looked at my leadership and said they are old school, and then we became old school, , , they need to get with the times we would say, and soon enough you will be old school too, but to be truthful how much has really changed in 100 yrs of fed FF, not much… still have to put competent boots on the ground, folks that are willing to get the job done, make decisions on the fly. This new tech, so called new…..tracking resources on the fire ground…..monitoring folks as they get after it, so there will be someone monitoring a crew that will call a Supt and tell them ” Hey you are in a dangerous situation and you need to get out” lol…..How does this keep folks safer…..maybe if they get lost you can find them, oh I know that folks go missing on fires from time to time….head scratcher to be sure….but it happens…;…tracking folks will not keep someone from making disastrous decisions, seems to me that it would require a dedicated groups of knowledgeable folks to manage such a system, where are we going to find the multitudes to manage such a program. Every EOC will have to monitor their local resources….Really….

    It’s a very dangerous profession and it will always be so, I am not at all dismissing safety, I just do not see the a critical need for this, I am open to some aspect of these ideas, this is not the holy grail of how to keep folks out of harms way, the only holy grail would be to do nothing…..stay in the trucks……

    I know, I am just an old retired fed, so why say anything, I guess because someone has to…….Good luck in implementing such a program, we can not even get our act together to perform meaningful large scale landscape fuel treatment…..We spend a ton of money and it’s only ever just a drop in the bucket…..what do we treat every year maybe 1% of all fed lands, I may be way off……it’s not much….and certainly not ever enough…….Good luck………

  6. Agreeing with other posters on most other points. Lack of tracking technology is a problem in the natural resources professions writ large as well. Many of us work alone in remote areas, and no agency or company I’ve ever worked for would ever purchase an emergency beacon despite the relatively low cost. Goes to show you how much employees are “valued.” ?

    1. During “Travel Management”, conducting the Roads Anslysis Process, circa 2006-2009, I (primary Civil Engineer, militia CRWB/ENGB/ATBM(T) was drafted by CalTrans to be on yet another committee. The goal was to imbed a GPS portal system into Northern CA transportation infastructure, a method to systematically GPS track the partner agency vehicles in the field. I brought this back to the Engineering powers that be, on Forest and at the RO in Vallejo, and yeah, definately not interested!

      Now my degree is Engineering but Fire hired me first so my roots are in Fire and as a GS nothing I was instructed by my FMO to take my Type 3 Engine and “go hide”. Yes I had District parameters but my discretion where to stage for the day out of publics view. I was also not allowed to bring my Engine into town for a burger or lunch, had to be out of sight. My point is that my immediate superiors (1988) and all the way to Vallejo (2009), didn’t want to know where I was except that I was in the field in the job. As the Forester said, no one gave/gives a whit where we were except in the field.

      GPS technology I have used on the fireline since 1992 when I bought my own cheapy version of a Trimble Scoutmaster from my Engineering job and onto the line during assignments. I used it for crew location and transportation networking as well as commo with helos for bucket drops. It worked ok since back then SA or selective availability (built in error for civilian use of a military system) was on but we created work-arounds, and now GPS civilian accuracy is survey-accurate. Point here is its nothing new folks and def not a panacea!

  7. I’d like real-time thermal imaging in a handheld device, basically a GPS device but with thermal.

    I’d also like a FLIR camera attached to my smartphone to decrease particulate exposure during mopup, I think they go for about $250 each.

    And I’d like to see if we can retain some institutional knowledge that keeps walking out the door, by far the biggest safety issue we have today.

  8. I can’t get GPH’s replaced. We got kids running chainsaws older than they are. Not a lot of incentive out there.

    How is Ops going to react when all the dots sit like we tend to do, will they remember getting the OT for the folks?

What do you think?