The effectiveness of the media to inform the public during evacuations and wildland fire effects on recreation are some topics addressed in a U.S. Forest Service report published this month that is a compilation of 17 studies on the social science aspects of fires.
More than 20 scientists present their work in the 260-page report, entitled “Fire Social Science Research From the Pacific Southwest Research Station: Studies Supported by National Fire Plan Funds.”
The report’s communications research showed the emergence of citizen news producers when public information officers and media representatives do not fill homeowner needs for detailed, real-time information on fire location, size and movement.
“During the initial stages of a fire, people want real-time information specific to a location, such as a subdivision,” said Deborah Chavez, a Forest Service social scientist who helped conduct research in the report.
According to one study, cell phones, digital cameras, text messaging, blogs, personal websites and e-mail vastly improved homeowners’ ability to communicate with their neighbors, during evacuations in 2003 near San Bernardino, Calif.
Residents complained public information officers were preoccupied reporting on which agencies were managing fires, firefighting resources being used and suppression costs. They also said media coverage was often sensationalized, inaccurate and directed to regional audiences and not those affected by local evacuations.
One problem that needs to be solved is how to provide near-real-time information to residents whose safety is impacted by a wildland fire. In the 2003 Cedar fire near San Diego 15 civilians were killed–many of them while trying to evacuate from the Wildcat Canyon Road area with little or no warning. Many civilians were also killed while trying to evacuate from the Tunnel fire in Oakland in 1991. At least twice this year alone people have been burned to death in their homes when a wildland fire burned through their neighborhood.
Making real time information about the fire’s location available, interpreting that data to decide what areas should evacuate and which areas are safe, then providing this data to the public in near-real-time is not a small task. But it could be argued that this should be the most important objective of fire managers, above and beyond the boiler-plate written into every Incident Action Plan of “provide for the safety of the public and firefighters”.
A large fire is directly impacting an urban interface. Unmanned aerial vehicles or other aircraft are 10,000-50,000 feet over the fire 24 hours a day transmitting real time infrared and conventional visual imagery to the Incident Command Post (ICP). Technicians and infrared interpreters are evaluating the data, again in real time, and creating a map showing the fire’s perimeter. Fire Behavior Analysts provide fire spread predictions. An Operations Section Chief at the ICP evaluates all of this information and communicates with the Situation Unit Leader, Division Supervisors, Field Observers, and the Ops Section Chief in the field. Working with the Incident Commander he or she makes decisions about what areas should be evacuated and informs law enforcement to implement the evacuations.
Law enforcement activates reverse 911 to robo-call all of the landline phones in the affected area and sends officers into the field to notify residents to evacuate, but they can’t contact everyone.
The Situation Unit uploads to the Internet a map showing the current location of the fire and which areas are under an evacuation order. This map is available to the world and is updated every 15 minutes if needed. The map could be based on Google Maps, be zoom-able, show evacuation routes, shelters, and have interactive features, rather than the typical static .pdf or .jpg file that incidents usually produce.
The Information Officer’s staff maintains a public blog, updated many times each day, containing the information that the public needs to know. More emphasis is placed on keeping the citizens safe, than providing the number of engines and helicopers assigned to the fire.
All of this technology exists now. It would not take a Manhattan Project to make it happen.
UPDATE September 23: A county in Montana has taken a step in the right direction. Read about it HERE.