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, or Jack Thorpe,  jack at

Yarnell Fire lead investigator talks about the report and tracking firefighters

Jim Karels, Florida State Forester, Yarnell Hill Fire
Jim Karels

The person who led the 54-person team that investigated the June 30 deaths of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots talked to a reporter for the Florida Current about the results of their investigation and how they track firefighters in his agency.

Previously, Florida State Forester Jim Karels’ team wrote in their report about the Yarnell Hill Fire which was released in September:

The judgments and decisions of the incident management organizations managing this fire were reasonable. Firefighters performed within their scope of duty, as defined by their respective organizations. The Team found no indication of negligence, reckless actions, or violations of policy or protocol.

The Yarnell Hill Fire report also said:

… [it] does not identify causes in the traditional sense of pointing out errors, mistakes, and violations…

Many of us criticized the report for whitewashing the tragedy and failing firefighters who deserve to increase their knowledge of how to avoid similar disasters in the future. A lessons learned opportunity was missed.

It will be interesting to see if the report about the fire that is being written by the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health provides better information about what happened, why, and how to avoid similar deaths.

Below is an excerpt from the article in the Florida Current:

Karels, though, said a second section of the report asks questions about the decision-making process that will help develop lessons to be learned. He said the fact that all 19 firefighters died together while making decisions on their own and separately made the investigation different from other investigations.

“It would be real easy to say, ‘This is exactly what happened and these are why decisions were made and this is something to blame,'” Karels said. “But all 19 are gone. So we reconstructed an event based on the best knowledge we had.”

He said lessons learned from the fire include the need for more prescribed burning and mitigation nationwide to reduce the potential for deadly wildfires.

In the interview Mr. Karels also talked about tracking the location of firefighters, since no one on the Yarnell Hill Fire knew where the Granite Mountain Hotshots were at the time of the fatal entrapment or previously that they were hiking through unburned vegetation near the fire which changed direction and burned over their location due to a passing thunderstorm.

Florida had to figure out the lessons from its own wildfire deaths in 2011 when two firefighters in Hamilton County were killed while battling a blaze.

He said [the] “Blue Ribbon Fire” led to recommendations on improving communication, asset tracking and providing enough helicopters to battle fires.

[Agriculture Commissioner Adam] Putnam is requesting $5 million for new vehicles in fiscal year 2014-15 in addition to $4 million received last year for upgrading technology and equipment…

The Hamilton County fire and the Arizona fire both led to recommendations to improve the tracking of firefighters and equipment during a rapidly expanding fire, Karels said.

After the 2011 fire, Florida began installing a tracking system on computers in supervisory vehicles that map firefighters and machinery with the locations of the fire and terrain, Karels said.


Where do we go from here?

We have written previously about how the inability of fire supervisors to always be situationally aware of the location of firefighters has contributed to at least 24 deaths in recent years — 19 on the Yarnell Hill Fire and 5 on the Esperanza fire.

On the 2006 Esperanza Fire in southern California, Branch II and the Captain of Engine 57 had an understanding that the Engine crew would not remain at the Octagon house, where they eventually died (see page 9 of the USDA OIG report). The crew was supposed to go to an area identified as a safety zone and not try to defend the house, according to information provided by Branch II. For some reason the crew decided to defend the house, setting up hose lays and a portable pump. The fire entrapped them at that location, killing all five members of the crew.

If Branch II, an Operations Section Chief, or a Safety Officer had access to real time information about the location of their resources on the fire, it is likely that the engine crew would have been directed to go to the safety zone as instructed earlier by Branch II.

Granite Mountain Hotshots hike to the Yanrell Hill fire
Granite Mountain Hotshots hike to the Yarnell Hill fire on June 30. Photo by Joy Collura.

The person that was supervising the 19 firefighters that died on the Yarnell Hill Fire was the Operations Section Chief. In the report on page 22, he tells the crew, Granite Mountain Hotshots, to “hunker and be safe”, which usually means find a nearby safe spot and stay there. On page 27 Operations tells the airborne Aerial Supervision Module about the crew, “They’re in a good place. They’re safe…”

The Blue Ridge Hotshots thought Granite Mountain was walking north to a ranch house safety zone north of their location. OPS thought the crew was safely in the black. He did not know the 19 firefighters were walking in the unburned area toward a ranch south of their location. If Ops or a Safety Officer with access to the location of all fire resources had known the crew’s location as they first began their fatal trek, it is likely the entrapment could have been prevented.

The Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety, as I envision it, 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.

Cell phone-based location systems will not work on many fires due to incomplete coverage. What might work are temporary cell sites or dedicated repeaters on aircraft or mountain tops, or a geosynchronous satellite that is always overhead and could receive data from almost everywhere except in the deepest, steep canyons or heaviest tree canopy. The same satellite could host the proposed system that would survey the entire western United States every two minutes or less, mapping fires and detecting new fires as small as 10 feet in diameter.

If Congress and the American people were presented with this proposal, even though it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, they just might vote to save firefighters’ lives.

Luddites who oppose technology and want everything to remain the same will never be in favor of this concept. I understand that, and recognize that everyone is entitled to their own opinion

Researchers design satellite to detect wildfires — a step toward the Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety?

A concept for a satellite that would be dedicated to detecting new wildfires.

Researchers at Berkeley have designed a concept for a satellite that would be dedicated to detecting new wildfires. Decades ago we relied on a network of lookout towers staffed by employees and later volunteers who observed emerging fires and reported them by telephone or radio. Today most fires are turned in by residents or travelers with cell phones.

Dr. Gabbert’s prescription for keeping new fires from becoming megafires is:

Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible.

But if a fire is not detected and reported quickly, rapid initial attack is not possible.

This proposed satellite, called FUEGO – Fire Urgency Estimator in Geosynchronous Orbit, would survey the entire western United States every two minutes or less and could detect a fire that is about 10 feet in diameter. Assuming that the data from the satellite could be transmitted to the appropriate dispatch center within a minute or two, this could be a major step toward keeping fires small… IF the fire agencies have the appropriate initial attack policies in place and an adequate number of firefighting resources, both ground and air-based, to respond and arrive at the fire within the first 10 to 30 minutes.

FUEGO satellite
Artist’s concept for FUEGO on orbit (FUEGO Concept Art by R. E. Lafever, LBNL)

While the cost of the satellite could be several hundred million dollars, it could conceivably save money if it prevents a few megafires like the Rim Fire in Yosemite National Park last summer that to date has cost more than $127 million.

The real time detection of new fires is a very worthy goal, but added to this system should be the capability for real time monitoring and mapping of existing fires. The Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety is a system that could track firefighters on the ground AND the location of 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. 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.

All of this technology exists. It would be expensive to implement, but it could save lives.