New $24.6 million GPS radio system to make Victoria’s firefighters safer

The following information was provided by the office of the Premier of Victoria, Australia last year.

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Minister for Environment and Climate Change Ryan Smith today announced work has begun to install 6,000 new communications radios in firefighting vehicles, aircraft, incident control centres, fire towers and work centres throughout Victoria.Mr Smith said the $24.6 million project would see the current 19 year-old radio fleet replaced with a state-of-the-art system to better protect emergency services personnel and Victorian communities.

“This program will see vital new communications radios, which are digital-capable, installed in firefighting vehicles and aircraft throughout Victoria,” Mr Smith said.

“New handheld radios will also be provided for use by operational staff.

“Communications are a crucial part of effective bushfire response. Upgrading communications infrastructure enhances the capability of our emergency services to protect communities and firefighting personnel from bushfire.”

Mr Smith said the radio replacement project would be led by the Department of Primary Industries and Environment (DEPI).

“Each radio unit will be equipped with a GPS tracking system enabling incident managers to track the location of vehicles and firefighters in real time – improving fire ground operations, logistics and firefighter safety,” Mr Smith said.

“The new radios are also compatible with CFA systems along with those of the SES and our neighbouring states, which will simplify communications between the firefighting agencies when they are working together on the fireground.”

Two thousand radios are expected to be installed during the next six months, with the remainder scheduled for installation ahead of the 2014/15 fire season.

Mr Smith said the replacement of the radios addressed, in part, recommendation 22 from the Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission. The recommendation calls for standardisation of information and communications systems within DEPI and the Country Fire Authority (CFA).

“I’m proud of the progress the Coalition Government has made in preparing the state for bushfires. There has been a lot of hard work done in response to the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, including projects such as this,” Mr Smith said.

“We’re committed to reducing the risk of bushfires and making Victorians safer. ”

Mr Smith said the Coalition Government had budgeted to spend $338.7 million on land and fire management in the 2013-14 financial year. This includes an extra $9 million to expand the planned burning program.

The Coalition Government’s planned burning program hit a 30 year high this year with 253,000 hectares of planned burning undertaken.

A Telstra consortium has been awarded the radio replacement contract.

The consortium consists of Telstra, Tait Communications (NZ)) and AA Radio Communications (Australia).

About the new radios:
  • DEPI manages the Network Emergency Organisations (NEO) radio terminal fleet comprising DEPI, Parks Victoria, VicForests and Melbourne Water.
  • After a public expression of interest and selective tender process, a consortium comprising Telstra, Tait Communications (a New Zealand design and manufacturing company) and AA Radio Communications (a local radio installation and service provider) won the contract
  • The new radios are compatible with the existing DEPI / CFA communications infrastructure, the State Mobile Radio Trunked Network and DEPI / CFA Incident Channel Networks and fire ground communications.
  • Interoperability with SES and bordering states’ communications systems has been incorporated.
  • The new radios allow for an easy transition to the new digital P25 emergency service standards and planned digital future for Victorian communications networks.
  • Global Positioning System (GPS) displays enable users of in-vehicle and hand held radio units to use multiple mapping formats to provide enhanced interoperability.
  • Where a network exists, the GPS information is sent back to the DEPI tracking system and displayed on FireMap for vehicle tracking, allowing commanders to see the location of resources.
  • Enhanced battery life, increasing reliability when long operations shifts are required.

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Thanks and a hat tip go out to Cameron.

Cell phone company offers vehicle tracking service

We have been advocating what we call the Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety — a system that can provide two things in real time:

  1. The location of a wildfire, and,
  2. The location of ground-based firefighting resources, including engines, water tenders, overhead personnel, dozers, and dismounted (walking) firefighters.

We are convinced that the lives of 24 firefighters could have been saved in the last eight years if a system like this had been available which can provide a “common operational picture” (COP), a standard process in the military.

Many companies offer solutions to provide the location of personnel and equipment. To illustrate how mainstream these services have become, below is a video that describes a vehicle tracking service from a cell phone company which can collect location data via cell phone networks or through satellites, so presumably it would work in very remote locations. This may or may not be feasible for tracking wildland fire vehicles, and apparently it is not for individuals, but it is an example of some of the technology that is available right now. Off the shelf. This afternoon. The U.S. Forest Service has begun a 2-year study to make a recommendation on how to proceed toward either acquiring, or doing nothing about obtaining Holy Grail capability.

The wildland fire agencies will be negligent if they do not provide this in the near future.

Other similar systems include the Blue Sky Network, the  military C4ISR system now known as the Department of Defense Architecture Framework (DoDAF), and many other fleet tracking solutions.

What is the Forest Service doing about tracking firefighters and fires in real time?

Shep Cyn Fire
Firefighter on the Shep Canyon Fire, September 6, 2011. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Since October of 2013 we have been writing about what we call the Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety — a system that could track firefighters AND the location of the fire in real time. We envision that the data could be monitored by a Safety Officer, Operations Section Chief, or Division Supervisor to ensure that firefighters are safe relative to the location of the fire. It is our position that in the last 9 years the lives of 24 firefighters could have been saved by a system like this. On the 2006 Esperanza Fire and the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire, the supervisors of the firefighters that were killed thought their personnel were in a different location than where they met their demise. If we go back further, for example to the 2005 Cramer Fire and others over the last couple of decades, we could probably add to the list.

In an effort to find out what, if anything, the federal land management agencies are doing to increase firefighters’ situational awareness by knowing the real time location of firefighters and the fire, we contacted the U.S. Forest Service and gave them a list of questions. Our request bounced around and eventually we received a reply from Mike Ferris of the National Incident Management Organization in Portland.The short answer is — they have started a two-year study to look at the issue. So far the study is funded for one year, but no timeline or target implementation date has been established.

Considering the 12 federal air tanker studies completed over an 18-year period before anything substantial was done to address the aging aircraft issue, we hope this two-year study is not simply the first of many that will be placed on a shelf and ignored before something is done to improve the situational awareness of our firefighters. Analysis Paralysis can be fatal. With no timeline to shoot for yet, it sounds like it could suffer the same fate as the 12 air tanker studies.

We thank Mr. Ferris for responding to our request. His answers are below, along with our questions, in bold.

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1. Is the USFS doing anything to develop a system to track the real time location, on a regular basis, of firefighters AND the fire they are assigned to?

At the present time there is no technology in use that enables real-time tracking of ground resources assigned to wildland fires. There is also no standard for such tracking or the technology that would support it that has been accepted on an interagency basis. The U.S. Forest Service continues to review and assess the advances in technology associated with GPS devices. There are GPS devices which show position of the unit as well as devices which transmit that position to a receiver. Wildland fire forces are challenged in the terrain they deal with, the large numbers of federal, state, local, and private cooperators who take action on our fires, and the appropriate use of new technology and data. The Forest Service continues to assess the use of technology used in such places as Department of Defense and weigh the utility and benefit of these technologies. Considering the nearly 10,000 fires per year the Forest Service responds to, over the nearly 200 million acres we protect, in 44 states, our focus is developing decision support which will enable us to take effective, efficient action on those fires and care for the safety of firefighters and civilians.

The Fire and Aviation Management Technology & Development Steering Committee rank the need for a Situational Awareness System for ground forces a priority project. The objectives are:

  • Define business and technical requirements for a situational awareness system for ground forces. This includes the tracking of personnel.
  • Measure current performance as a baseline for evaluation.
  • Evaluate existing technologies against the requirements.
  • Develop an implementation plan for an interagency application.

This project builds on the previous work conducted by the Technology & Development program on assessing the state of the technology and evaluating commercial-off-the shelf products.

2. If so, what exactly?

The Forest Service’s Technology and Development Program (T&D) has been evaluating Satellite Emergency Notification Devices (SEND) since 2008. The Missoula T&D Center led the evaluation of SPOT and DeLorme® InReach® devices with the objective of evaluating the performance of these devices in areas where two way radio and cellular transmission are unavailable. Recently, the Forest Service purchased 6,000 SPOT units for field use, not related to wildland fire activities. The T&D Program and Chief Information Office continue to evaluate the use of SEND devices including functions within wildland fire operations.

Other initiatives have been sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate, First Responder Resource Group where tracking systems have been used or tested on fires. The Next-Generation Incident Command System (NICS) was developed through collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Lincoln Labs and CAL FIRE. NICS has been used operationally on wildfires in California. The University of California, San Diego Supercomputer Center currently is hosting NICS (https://nics.ll.mit.edu/sadisplay/login.seam). NICS is open-source, web-based and non-proprietary. Since it is web-based, access to the internet via Wi-Fi or cellular signal is required.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Forest Service’s T&D Program cooperated on the Personal Alert and Tracking System. This is a two-dimensional tracking system that uses a persistent, self-healing mesh network. This system was tested on two prescribed fires; however, it is not commercially available.

While many of these technologies have potential, more detailed analysis needs to be conducted before any large scale deployment can occur. It is important to describe the other considerations that must be resolved prior to determining a potential solution. Implementing technologies in incident management in the wildland fire environment is very complex and poses a number of operational, integration, distribution and infrastructure issues that need to be resolved before they can be implemented on a national, integrated, interagency scale.

Prior to implementation of any of the solutions, the following must be determined. These issues include:

  • Determining whether firefighters should be tracked all the time or whether simply knowing the location of a fire fighter in distress is what is needed.
  • Determining what types of incidents resources should be tracked on, i.e. initial attack, extended attack, Type 1 or Type 2 incidents, etc.
  • Determining what types of resources to track, i.e. agency personnel, contractors, cooperators, etc. and what level to track them at, i.e. crew, individual firefighter, etc.
  • Determining how to distribute tracking devices to firefighters, i.e. at their home units, on incidents, etc.
  • Determining who will be responsible for tracking resources, i.e. dispatch, incident personnel, etc.
  • Difficulties with receiving satellite or cell phone signals in remote, mountainous areas.
  • Define the frequency of automatic reporting from the device
  • Potential distractions of tracking devices to firefighters (“Christmas tree effect”).

3. Who is involved in the development?

The National Technology & Development Center will be the lead for this project. Since the objective is to provide an interagency solution, an interagency complement of subject matter experts will be assembled. After defining the business need and technical requirements, a request for information (RFI) will be published in the Commerce Business Daily (CBD) to solicit information from the commercial sector.

4. Is the development adequately funded? What is the amount of the funding?

Funding is part of the regular appropriations for the technical program of work identified for that year. The estimated duration for the project is two years. The estimated budget is $290K. This budget has been requested, however, since funds are appropriated for a one year period, the request for funding has to be done every year. Within the estimated two-year period, a recommendation will be given to senior fire leadership.

5. What is the stage of development?

Preliminary development, testing, and evaluation have been completed to give an initial assessment on the state of the technology. Since the technology associated with this project changes rapidly, a RFI will be published.

6. When will it be implemented?

No current timeline has been established. Once the advantages and disadvantages have been completely assessed, then recommendations will be forwarded to senior fire leadership for their deliberation and decision.

7. What will be the cost?

Funding needs will be determined once a comprehensive review has been completed and a complete understanding of the operational, integration, distribution and infrastructure issues are identified and understood.

8. Specifically, how will firefighters be tracked? Using a currently available consumer-grade personal locator device that is available now off the shelf? Or will the hardware be incorporated into radios carried by firefighters?

It is still too early to determine just what product or products will give firefighters and fire managers the best options for firefighter safety.

9. Specifically, how will the real time location of the fire be determined? How will it be made available to firefighters?

This is part of the project. The project takes a longer view and takes a look at what type of tracking is needed.

10. Are the federal land management agencies interested in what is being used now in southern California called the “Next Generation Incident Command System”, which will do much of the above? If not, why not?

The Next Generation Incident Command System was developed by MIT Lincoln Labs with CAL FIRE as the primary wildland fire agency associated with the development. The Forest Service, in conjunction with the NWCG Equipment Technology Committee, is currently collaborating with CAL FIRE and NICS to assess the emerging technology and keeping abreast of developments.

11. Are the federal land management agencies interested in a system developed by DARPA that does all of the above and much more, called “Fireline Advanced Situational Awareness Handheld (FLASH)”. If not, why not?

The Forest Service attended the demonstration in Prescott, Ariz. of the FLASH system. All viable technologies will be considered. Technology providers are encouraged to respond to the RFI after the business needs and technical requirements are defined.

Shawna Legarza on the CBS Evening News

Shawna Legarza, a former Hotshot who is now the Director of Fire and Aviation for the U.S. Forest Service’s California Region was interviewed for the CBS evening News.

The subject came up of tracking the location of firefighters. We have written often about what we call the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety, a system that could track in real time the location of firefighters on the ground AND the location of the fire, all displayed on one screen — anything from a cell phone or seven-inch tablet to a laptop computer at the Incident Command post. This data should be available in real time to ground and aviation personnel on fires, as well as key supervisors and decision makers in the Operations and Planning Sections. 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. This information could have saved 24 lives in recent years — 19 on the Yarnell Hill Fire and 5 on the Esperanza Fire. In both cases the firefighters and their supervisors did not know where the firefighters were relative to the location of the fire.

The technology is available right now. The military has been using it for years. Our leaders in wildfire suppression need to make the decision to get it done.

“Game changing” device to enhance situational awareness for firefighters?

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has donated $225,000 worth of situational awareness equipment to the Prescott, Arizona Fire Department. The 19 firefighters that died on the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, 2013 were members of the department’s Granite Mountain Hotshots. It is likely that if the fire’s chain of command knew that the crew had left a safe area and decided to hike through unburned brush, they would not have been overrun by the fire.

DARPA, created in 1958, can claim credit for ARPANET (earliest predecessor of the Internet), the Global Positioning System, breakthroughs in driverless vehicles, and many other innovations. Currently they are working on technologies that would enable us to fly anywhere on the planet in a single hour, grow vaccines in plants to protect against pandemics, and build a robot that runs faster than a cheetah.

The Daily Courier has an article that spells out some of the features of the system donated to the Prescott FD. Here is an excerpt:

Several portable electronic networking devices can be placed on mountaintops or in planes to connect firefighters with a self-contained mobile 4G network in remote locations. The entire network is called MANET for Mobile Ad-hoc Network.

For example, he can use the tablet to calculate the distance to a safety zone and how long it might take to get there based on the terrain. While the time calculation doesn’t include vegetation, a firefighter still can look at real-time images of the vegetation and terrain.

One firefighter can hike an escape route and then transmit that route to other firefighters, Keith added.

Incident command officers can use the system’s video screens to display the exact locations of firefighters wearing the kits. And firefighters facing an emergency can override others on the radio system to announce their situation.

Firefighters on the ground access the same video feeds as the supervisors. They can zoom in on their location, then zoom out to gain situational awareness. They have access to the Internet and its weather information. Fire managers can add the locations of the fire perimeter, spot fires and safety zones on the maps for all to see. Map layers include terrain, roads and structures. The system can even tell when firefighters are about to go out of the range of communication.

“This is game-changing technology,” Kluckhuhn said. “What you are seeing now didn’t exist a year ago.”

DARPA may not have known that the Prescott Fire Department no longer has a hotshot crew and they have no plans to rebuild Granite Mountain, so we hope Prescott can find a use for the $225,000 worth of situational awareness equipment. Perhaps they will donate it to an organization that deploys wildland firefighters every day.

The software that runs the system, called Fireline Advanced Situational Awareness Handheld (FLASH) was designed specifically by DARPA for wildland firefighting. The government now owns the software.

The hardware is expensive, about $9,000 for each firefighter kit, so there’s little chance that anyone outside of the military will be purchasing the equipment. The United States places a higher priority on spending $1.57 trillion on adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq than in protecting our own homeland from wildfires.

But at least this demonstrates that the technology is available. Maybe a scaled-down version with fewer bell and whistles can be developed that the land management agencies will be willing to spend money on.

A step toward the Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety?

We have written several times about the Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety. As I envision it, the system would enable radios carried by firefighters and in their vehicles to transmit their location in real time which would then show up on a remote display (on anything from a cell phone or a 7″ tablet, up to a laptop computer) that would be monitored by a Safety Officer, Branch Director, Ops Chief, or Division Supervisor. The display would also show the real time location of the fire. Knowing either of these in real time would enhance the safety of firefighters. Knowing both is the Holy Grail.

Since 2006 at least 24 wildland firefighters have been killed whose deaths probably could have been prevented if their supervisors had known in real time the location of the firefighters and the fire. Those fatalities occurred on the Yarnell Hill and Esperanza Fires. If we go back through entrapments over the last several decades, we would probably find many others that fall into the same category.

How many more firefighters will we mourn before the Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety is available and deployed?

Next-generation Incident Command System

A system we wrote about in February has a great deal of potential to be a Holy Grail solution and is already being used by many emergency services organizations, including CAL FIRE. We were told in February by people closely associated with the project that the U.S. Forest Service has shown no interest in the system.

It has the unfortunate name “Next-Generation Incident Command System (NICS), but it is not a new Incident Command system; it is hardware and software. The developers describe it as “a mobile web-based command and control environment for dynamically escalating incidents from first alarm to extreme-scale that facilitates collaboration across [multiple] levels of preparedness, planning, response, and recovery for all-risk/all-hazard events.” It is a combination of tools, technologies, and an innovative concept of operations for emergency response.

 
Thanks and a hat tip go out to Jeff

New communication tool enhances incident management and situational awareness

At least 255 emergency management agencies in California and a few other areas have been experimenting with and in some cases using a new tool that provides enhanced situational awareness for incident managers. Called Next-Generation Incident Command System (NICS), the developers describe it as “a mobile web-based command and control environment for dynamically escalating incidents from first alarm to extreme-scale that facilitates collaboration across [multiple] levels of preparedness, planning, response, and recovery for all-risk/all-hazard events.” It is a combination of tools, technologies, and an innovative concept of operations for emergency response.

NICS is called “technology for the tired, dirty and hungry — dirt simple to learn and dirt simple to use”. It was conceived, envisioned, and functionally specified by experienced first responders, many from the California emergency response community, and developed by skilled scientists and engineers at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, a government facility on Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts. The software and electronic data are being hosted at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, thanks to a monetary appropriation from the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, but NICS can be hosted anywhere and with a minimum of gear — even on a well equipped laptop.

The development of the project has been funded by the federal Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, but that source is scheduled to end October 31, 2014. The two people primarily involved in outreach to the emergency response community, and who are working on finding funding for the next 5-year increment, are retired Chief Bob Toups and Dr. Jack Thorpe.

NICS is “technology neutral.” It can be used on computers as well as tablets and hand-held devices. It is compatible with Windows, iOS, Linux, Android, and the web browsers Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and later versions of Internet Explorer.

Uses of NICS
NICS graphic.

Maps can be created by firefighters on scene in a matter of minutes, which are then immediately viewable by anyone who has access to that incident on a computer or hand-held device with internet connectivity. The maps can show an incident perimeter, staging areas, evacuation zones, road blocks, division breaks, and symbology commonly used on incident maps.

The information can be accessed not only by firefighters on site and in command centers, but by law enforcement officials responsible for evacuation and anyone else on a need to know basis.

One of the limitations of the system is that it communicates via the internet. If firefighters in a remote location do not have internet access from their cell phone or computer, or via a satellite connection, they can’t send or receive the information. However, this should not be a problem for higher level managers in offices who also have a need to create and share information about the incident. And, mobile cell sites, commonly called a Cell on Wheels, or COW, are increasingly available and should be deployed automatically to large incidents that have poor cell coverage.

The best way to get a feeling of how the system works and what it can do is to view the very well done 9-minute video which is embedded below. A .pdf presentation document about NICS can be found HERE.

NICS has been in development since 2007 and in 2010 was first utilized by agencies in southern California. Last year it was used on 102 incidents in the state. It was also in use during the 2013 Boston Marathon assisting in managing the event and tracking the 26,000 runners, and continued to be utilized after the bombing.

NICS can display the near real time location of emergency resources using Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) and/or Position Location Information (PLI) technologies. Tracking can be either cellar or satellite-based. Currently some agencies that use Delorme InReach satellite-based tracking devices can see where their resources and personnel are located. Several other tracking devices are compatible with the system as well. Mr. Toups and Mr. Thorpe told us that if an appropriate software backend was written, other tracking devices could be integrated also. It is possible that the 6,000 tracking devices recently purchased by the U.S. Forest Service could be used within NICS.

NICS incidents in 2013
NICS incidents in California in 2013. NICS graphic. (click to enlarge)

While NICS will not solve every problem a firefighter or other emergency responder has, it can add a significant level of situational awareness for personnel on the sharp end of the spear as well as those in remote offices who have to make decisions related to the incident. One chief put it this way: “We are able to compress the time of developing our situational awareness from 12 hours to 12 minutes.”

Being aware of the near real time location of firefighters is half of what we call the Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety. The other half is knowing the real time location of a wildfire. Some near real time fire mapping is currently being done with NICS in California — if that ever routinely becomes part of NICS and is commonly available nationwide, it will reduce fatalities.

Mr. Toups and Mr. Thorpe call the development of NICS about 20 percent complete. They have plans to continue to make improvements and to add features. Most of the additions will be from the emergency response community: Everyone is encouraged to develop apps that can plug-and-play into the basic NICS architecture, just like other apps developed for smart phones and tablets.

To date NICS is primarily being used by state and local agencies in California. The federal wildland fire agencies are not using the system.

The person that gets credit for choosing the name, Next-Generation Incident Command System, is Jose A. Vazquez, a Special Assistant for First Responder Technologies with the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate — the organization that supplied four years of funding to develop the system.

Our only criticism is that unfortunate choice — the name, Next Generation Incident Command System. It implies that ICS is being thrown out and replaced. But NICS is a communications tool, infrastructure that works within the ICS or the National Incident Command System, and will not replace, but will enhance, ICS. Most products named next-generation, such as the next-generation air tankers, are intended to immediately or eventually replace older versions.

NICS is provided at no cost to all emergency response organizations. It is an open community, open standards, shared project. No vendor has any claim to its intellectual property. It belongs to the community. For more information contact Bob Toups, cdfbob at gmail.com, or Jack Thorpe,  jack at thorpe.net.