Six new technologies that can aid wildland firefighters

Hearing about technology wildland fire
Hearing about technology for wildland fire, before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee June 5, 2019.

This week the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing in Washington about new technologies that can aid wildland firefighters. The Committee invited companies to describe new systems that can help firefighters communicate and improve their situational awareness. Legislation signed by the President in March requires the federal land management agencies to adopt within 6 to 24 months systems that can track in real time both the advancing edge of a wildfire and all of the firefighting resources working on the incident. Firefighters have been killed when these important facts about a dangerous fire were not known, due to smoke, darkness, or terrain.

In the video below we see interviews with the representatives of six companies describing their systems that may improve the situational awareness of firefighters.

(The video can also be viewed at YouTube)

Only three of the 20 Senators that are members of the committee attended the hearing, Cory Gardner (CO), Maria Cantwell (WA), and Martin Heinrich (NM). Approximately 20 Senators sent one or more  members of their staff to observe.

In addition to the six companies that appear in the video, other organizations that had exhibits and made presentations in the hearing were the National Weather Service, Rave Mobile Safety, Vulcan Fire, and Simtable.

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.