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”.
As 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.
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.