Congress passes funding bill for federal firefighting agencies

The legislation pushes, again, for the implementation of tracking system for fire resources, due by March 12, 2021

Washington, DC
Washington, DC

Both houses of Congress passed a 5,600-page omnibus spending package Monday night to fund numerous programs that included the Departments of Agriculture and Interior along with COVID-19 relief. It the bill is signed by the President it will fund the agencies during the fiscal year that began October 1, 2020.

There are no major changes in the appropriations for wildland fire activities that employ approximately 15,000 forestry and range technicians whose primary duties are fighting wildfires. But there are some interesting issues that were highlighted, not in the text of the bill itself, but in the “explanatory statement” that elaborates on Congress’ oversight of the fire programs in the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Firefighting Technologies

Congress reminded the five agencies that the John D. Dingell, Jr. Natural Resources Management Act that passed overwhelmingly in both houses almost two years ago requires that by March 12, 2021 they develop and operate a tracking system to remotely locate the positions of fire resources. According to a press release by Senator Maria Cantwell at the time, 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. By September 8, 2019 they were also supposed to develop plans for providing real-time maps of the location of fires. We have referred to knowing the real time location of both the fire and firefighters working on the fire as the “Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety.”

Apparently worried that the five agencies may be dragging their feet in following the requirements in the bill (which became law), Congress very, very politely issued a reminder in the explanatory statement:

The Committee encourages increased investment in these technologies within the funds provided for Forest and Rangeland Research and for preparedness activities in Wildland Fire Management. The Committee encourages prioritizing the use of commercial, off-the-shelf solutions, including mobile MESH networking technology, that provide situational awareness and interoperable communications between federal, state, and local firefighting agencies.

Longer contracts for firefighting aircraft?

The explanatory statement has a surprisingly lengthy section that directs the Forest Service and the DOI to submit a report within 90 days that lays out the considerations of awarding 10-year contracts for aircraft available for wildland fire suppression activities. If the President signs the bill today, the report would be due March 22, 2021.

The Next Generation 3.0 contracts for five large air tankers announced in October are for only one year with the possibility of up to four more years at the discretion of the FS.

Fire Aviation has more details about the possibility of longer contracts.

Move the Forest Service Fire and Aviation section out of State and Private Forestry

More than half of the entire budget of the Forest Service goes to Fire and Aviation Management (FAM). But if you were trying to find FAM on the agency’s organization chart, it may take a while.

Organization Chart, USFS
Organization Chart, US Forest Service. (From USFS website, December, 22, 2020)

The first version of the appropriations bill introduced in the Senate required that FAM be moved out of State and Private Forestry and put in it’s own branch, with the Director of FAM becoming a Deputy Chief:

Commensurate with the modernized budget structure included in this Act, the Forest Service shall realign its Deputy Chief Areas to conform to the appropriations provided herein, including the creation of a Deputy Chief for Fire and Aviation to administer the Wildland Fire Management appropriation, within one year of enactment of this Act.

In November the National Association of State Foresters wrote a letter to the House and Senate appropriations leadership opposing the concept:

While we agree more must be done to minimize the threat of catastrophic wildfire, we are concerned that establishing a Deputy Chief for Fire and Aviation would divert valuable resources  from land management activities that reduce the threat of wildfire, only to establish additional bureaucracy around wildfire suppression… Establishing a Deputy Chief for Fire and Aviation is tantamount to building a “fire agency” and therefore contrary to the intent of the “Wildfire Funding Fix,” which Congress passed to free up funding for more active forest management.

The final version of the bill that passed Monday night eased off on that requirement, suggesting the agency just think about it:

The Committees are interested in data and recommendations relating to any changes that could be made to improve the representation of Wildland Fire Management leadership under this structure and the potential creation of a new Deputy Chief for Fire and Aviation. The Committees recognize that wildland fire related activities touch every aspect of the agency and believe that providing the fire function with a senior leadership role at the Service will improve coordination and better represents the role fire plays in agency budgeting and decision making.

Last week before the new language became available Monday night I checked with some fire management folks, asking their thoughts about the requirement, at the time, of promoting FAM to be their own branch with a Deputy Chief for Fire and Aviation. Here are their responses, in some cases edited for brevity:

Tom Harbour, former Director of FAM for the Forest Service:

The language is controversial. Specific organizational language like this is not popular with any federal organization. Based on just budget, the FAM program has been “Deputy Chief eligible” for a couple decades, but more goes into significant organization change decisions than budget. Five different Chiefs (Bosworth, Kimball, Tidwell, Tooke, Christiansen) have had the budget facts in front of them and have decided NOT to make a change.  The most obvious immediate question is what would happen with S&PF programs, and what happens with the important relationships with State Foresters?

Greg Greenhoe, former Deputy Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the Northern Region, USFS

I really don’t know enough about the issue to have an opinion. I can understand the concern of the State Foresters with Fire Management leaving State and Private. But even when I was still working I always thought it was strange that Fire was under State and Private. I can see that some folks would be concerned that the largest single budgeted function in the FS doesn’t have its own Deputy Chief.

Kelly Martin, former Fire Chief of Yosemite National Park, National Park Service

Due to the fact that the wildland fire budget for suppression and preparedness is an overwhelming part of the entire USFS budget, this new proposed Deputy Chief of Fire and Aviation Management (FAM) position reporting directly to the Chief of the USFS leads to better accountability between the Chief of the USFS and the Fire and Aviation program.  Much needed modern reforms and developing a “National Fire Plan 2.0” will need to be closely linked between the Chief of the USFS and the Dep Chief of FAM. State and Private Forestry will continue to be an important part of the USFS overall program with or without the Fire Director working directly for the Deputy Chief of SPF.

DHS studies emerging technology for wildfire response

The project team evaluated over 60 systems

DHS study wildfire technologyIn December of 2017, the Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator requested the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology research new and emerging technology that could be applied to wildland fire incident response, given the loss of life that occurred in California during the fall of 2017 in Santa Rosa and Ventura.

The project team identified three overarching conclusions that represent consistent themes captured throughout the course of the table top exercises and expert engagements.

  1. Time Criticality of WUI Fire Incidents: WUI fire incidents require immediate protective and response actions to save lives. The conflagration created when a wildland fire enters populated areas is unpredictable and can rapidly devastate these areas, threatening lives. Interventions and solutions that improve decision making and response in the initial minutes of a WUI fire are vital.
  2. Available Technology Solutions Exist: There exist available technologies (both government and commercial), which—if implemented—could immediately help emergency responders reduce the number of lives lost during WUI fire incidents. In particular, these technologies could immediately support ignition detection, fire tracking, public information and warning, evacuation, and responder safety. Improving capabilities in other elements of the WUI response (i.e. preparedness and critical infrastructure) may require investing in adaptable or developable solutions that are not immediately available.
  3. Public Education and Preparedness Measures are Vital: Public education and preparedness are essential to reducing the number of lives lost to WUI fire incidents. There is no solution more effective than preventing an ignition in the first place and ensuring the at-risk communities are prepared at the grassroots level to face wildland fire dangers.

The principal conclusions of this project are distilled into a set of seven key findings. They describe lines of effort addressing priority capability gaps that, if implemented, could substantially improve immediate life-saving efforts during WUI fire incidents. The key findings listed below are considered equally important to this objective and are not listed in any priority order.

  1. Implement and scale the use of state-of-the-art remote sensing assets to provide state and local stakeholders real-time, accurate, low-cost ignition detection and tracking information— especially fire perimeter using a mix of in situ, aerial, and space-based systems.
  2. Improve the ability of available and adaptable public alert and warning technologies to deliver more targeted and effective message across the whole community, particularly to individuals with disabilities and others with Access and Functional Needs (AFN).
  3. Improve use of key public and private social media and internet resources and capabilities to appropriately share data and adapt existing applications to enable more efficient and effective evacuation—e.g., expand and accelerate public-private partnerships through Integrated Public Alert and Warnings System (IPAWS) to include WUI incident-related evacuations, warning, and alerting.
  4. Support broader use of existing fire modeling and forecasting tools for pre-incident planning; while also advancing efforts to create high-confidence, timely WUI fire-specific models that can be used to inform response tactics during extreme conditions.
  5. Increase infrastructure resilience, especially critical infrastructure lifelines and support functions for wildland fire response—e.g., improve the resilience, interoperability, and reliability of communications, power utilities, digital links, and data center infrastructure.
  6. Integrate private, open, and crowdsourced data, resources, and capabilities to improve public safety situational awareness of WUI fire ignition detection and tracking.
  7. Support wide-scale adoption of interoperable, low-cost blue-force tracking technologies that feed near real-time situational awareness across key stakeholders, missions, and operations.

The project team evaluated over 60 existing systems, products, or solutions. Here is an example of how 10 were ranked for how well they addressed requirements.

technology address wildfire management safety

technology address wildfire management safety
Top ten solutions based on how many requirements that solution addresses.

In addition, the team evaluated the solutions for feasibility, affordability, usability, impact, and technology alignment.

The entire 131-page report can be downloaded. 2.8 MB

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to LM. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Orange County introduces pilot program for real time wildfire mapping

It is another step toward the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety

FIRIS fire wildfire mapping real time
An example of the technician’s screen when using the FIRIS system. Screenshot from the video below.

This month the Orange County Fire Authority began a 150-day pilot program that could lead to real time fire mapping being available to firefighters on the ground. Not knowing exactly where a fire is has been a factor in more than two dozen firefighter fatalities in recent decades. Smoke, terrain, and darkness can obstruct the view of fire crews and supervisors which can severely compromise their situational awareness.

The 150-day Fire Integrated Real-Time Intelligence System (FIRIS) pilot program got off the ground September 1 thanks to funding secured in the 2019-2020 California state budget by Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach).

“The State of California must shift strategies to address the constant crisis of wildfires – this is no longer a seasonal threat,” stated Assemblywoman Petrie-Norris. “I am proud to have partnered with the Orange County Fire Authority in securing $4.5 million in state funds for technology that will protect lives and property by giving first responders better, stronger tools to use against the threat of wildfires.”

The system utilizes a fixed-wing aircraft equipped with infrared and radar sensors that can see through smoke. The plane provides real-time fire perimeter mapping and live high definition video to support supercomputer-based wildfire predictive spread modeling.

FIRIS fire wildfire mapping real time
Screenshot of aircraft featured in the FIRIS B-Roll video.

A supercomputer at the University of California San Diego will run fire spread projections based on fire perimeter data collected by the aircraft. The output will estimate where the fire will be in the next six hours. The fire spread model will adjust for successful fire suppression actions by firefighters on the ground and in the air. This intel allows for more timely and accurate decision making for resource allocation and evacuations.

“The ability to place resources exactly where they need to be to successfully battle a wildfire can mean the difference between lives and property saved or lost”, said Orange County Fire Authority Fire Chief Brian Fennessy. “Technology is becoming increasingly important as we work to suppress wildfires quickly. We’re hopeful this pilot program may someday become a routine asset statewide.”

For decision-makers on the ground, a common operating picture increases situational awareness. Firefighters on the front line, incident commanders, law enforcement, and regional and state emergency operation centers all could have the ability to see the same fire intel on a smartphone, tablet or computer in real-time. Fire perimeter maps and live video feeds are provided through an electronic network to assist decision-makers.

This is another step toward the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety which would ultimately provide to fire supervisors the real time location of a fire and the location of firefighting personnel and equipment.

The video below is “B-Roll”, that is, unedited footage. The first 6.5 minutes are simply images of aircraft, but after that you will be able to look over the shoulder of the imagery technician as he observes infrared imagery of a fire, manually interprets the heat signatures, then traces the fire perimeter on the screen. That perimeter could then be electronically sent to the super computer in San Diego County which would run a fire spread model to predict what the fire will do in the next six hours.

Panel details improvements on the horizon for wildland fire situational awareness

Posted on Categories UncategorizedTags ,

New tools being developed that can help fight fires more safely and efficiently

fire situational awareness speakers
Left to right: Kate Dargan, co-founder and chief strategist of the firefighting-analytics firm Intterra Group; James Reilly, Director of U.S. Geological Survey; and Jeff Johnson, CEO of the Western Fire Chiefs Association. Screenshot from USGIF video below.

A very interesting panel discussion titled “The Power of Real-Time Data for Firefighting” occurred at a conference organized by the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) — a nonprofit, educational organization supporting the geospatial intelligence tradecraft.

The three primary speakers during the panel were Kate Dargan, co-founder and chief strategist of the firefighting-analytics firm Intterra Group; James Reilly, Director of U.S. Geological Survey; and Jeff Johnson, CEO of the Western Fire Chiefs Association.

They discussed some tools that are slowly beginning to appear in the hands of wildland firefighters and what is being worked on that could show up in the field soon that will enhance their situational awareness. They talked about real time fire perimeters that could be displayed on mobile devices, tracking firefighting resources, and high-resolution LIDAR mapping of the entire United States — right along the lines of what we have called the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighting.

The video below begins with introductions of the speakers and is followed by a description of the Camp Fire that burned through Paradise, California. If you’re already familiar with that incident, you  can skip ahead to 8:00 where Kate Dargan begins her excellent presentation. She became a firefighter at the age of 18 and worked her way up to the post of California State Fire Marshall and later co-founded the Intterra Group.

Here is a sample from her remarks where she described her vision of real time fire intelligence:

We need a persistent fire perimeter. I need to know where the fire is at all times. I need to know where I am against that fire perimeter. I need to know where my forces next to me are. I need to know that at a minimum of one square meter resolution. And I need to know that what is collected and served to me on my mobile device is no more than two minutes old. I need to see that in a shape file so I can put other data with it. That’s what real time means to me…That’s the bulls eye we should be aiming at.

Below is a screengrab image from the video.

Kate Dargan situational awareness wildfire
One of the slides from the presentation by Kate Dargan, co-founder and chief strategist of the firefighting-analytics firm Intterra Group. Screenshot from the video below.

Senators to followup on bill passed to enhance safety of wildland firefighters

“Firefighters lives are as important as soldiers.” Bill Gabbert, 2018.

FRNSW drone
Fire and Rescue New South Wales photo

Next week there will be a fire management technology “Expo” in Washington, D.C. to introduce Senators to emerging technology that can aid wildland firefighters.

Fourteen months after it was first introduced, the Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act became law after it was included in an omnibus bill, the Natural Resources Management Act. The Senate passed it with a vote of 92 to 8, and the House followed suit, 363 to 62. On March 12, 2019 it was signed by the President.

Now that the legislation has become Public Law 116-9 the federal land management agencies are directed to adopt or build on a number of new technologies that can enhance the safety of firefighters and aid in the suppression of wildfires.

The Expo scheduled for June 5 will give approximately eight to twelve proponents or vendors of new technology time to explain what these new systems can do. Then the Senators and their staffs will be able to individually talk with the representatives and examine the exhibits and displays the companies brought that will be lining the walls of the Senate hearing room.

Several of the technologies expected to be featured are listed below.

Later in June the Committee will convene their annual hearing where representatives of the land management agencies will bring the Senators up to date on their plans for managing wildfires this year. And importantly, the Senators, then fresh from their brief seminar on new technologies, will be able to discuss how the agencies are progressing on implementing the technology directives that they are now required by law to implement, many of which have due dates.

The key points in Public Law 116-9 have requirements for the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture. The completion dates were established from March 12, 2019 when the legislation was 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. (180 days, due by September 8, 2019)
      • 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, March 12, 2020)
      • 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, March 12, 2021)  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.

In October, 2013 we first wrote about what we 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.

CAL FIRE vehicles receiving Automatic Vehicle Location equipment

It will improve the situational awareness of firefighters.

A year and a half ago the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) signed a contract to provide technology in 1,200 state-owned vehicles to facilitate mission critical data communications. The Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) equipment being installed now will improve the situational awareness of firefighters by allowing full Computer Aided Dispatch connectivity and position updates of frontline fire response vehicles. The AVL systems are being used in Battalion Chief vehicles, Fire Engines, Crew Transports, Dozers, and Dozer transports.

CAL FIRE's Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) equipment
CAL FIRE’s Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) equipment being installed now in vehicles in the San Bernardino Unit. CAL FIRE photo.

The equipment CAL FIRE selected has triple redundancy. Cellular, VHF, and satellite communication methods allow for usage even in the most remote areas.

Installation of AVL hardware began in the Fresno Kings Unit of CAL FIRE in 2017 and has continued to present. The San Bernardino Unit is the eighteenth unit to receive AVL during this process.

CAL FIRE San Bernardino Unit Chief Glenn Barley said, “Implementation of AVL is a significant step forward to help assure the most efficient and effective deployment of CAL FIRE resources, and provide for their safety, both locally and across the state.

Wildfire Today has  been an advocate for the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighting, which is knowing the real time location of firefighters and the fire. This system will implement a portion of that, tracking the location of firefighting vehicles and other mobile equipment (but probably can’t track dismounted personnel). It will also have the capability of displaying a map, and when data is available it could show the location of the fire. For example, it could show a sketched-out hand drawn map of the fire, or live video from an air attack ship or drone orbiting 10,000 feet over the fire. And, importantly, it could indicate the location of all firefighting resources that have location tracking enabled.