Field tests of tracking devices for firefighters

We have often advocated the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighting, which is knowing the real time location of firefighters and the fire.

There are many different technologies and platforms for collecting and displaying data about the location of the fire, but the information collected has yet to become commonplace in the hands fireline supervisors on the ground.

A similar situation exists for tracking the location of firefighting resources — personnel and equipment. The technology has existed for years, but the “deciders” in the National and State capitals have not recognized its importance for providing situational awareness, so it is only being used in a few scattered areas.

The Colorado Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting (yes, they are still using that name) recently evaluated and tested two consumer-level personal tracking devices, the SPOT Gen3® and the Garmin inReach® (formerly known as the DeLorme inReach).

The executive summary from their report is below. The full document can be downloaded HERE.

Executive Summary
Wildland firefighters frequently operate in remote areas and are often a significant distance away from their supervisors or other nearby units. Additionally, wildland firefighters typically communicate with voice radios operating in analog mode, which does not facilitate location tracking or other digital situational awareness. One technology proposed to overcome these limitations and provide GPS location tracking and messaging for firefighters is satellite messengers. The Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting (CoE) was requested to conduct a study of these devices to analyze their utility for firefighters. This study illustrated the technical specifications of two consumer-grade satellite messengers, the SPOT Gen3® and the Garmin inReach® (formerly known as the DeLorme inReach), and provided information on service options and costs. The study also assessed the capabilities of the SOS feature common to both devices and employed field trials to evaluate the performance of the devices in various types of vegetation and terrain.

SPOT Gen3The CoE found that the SPOT device provides a one-way flow of information from the device user to others using predesignated email addresses, text messages, or website access. This device requires programming ahead of use to designate the time interval for location tracking, as well as the content of the three types of messages it can send. The inReach device provides a two-way flow of information, with others able to communicate with the device user via email, text message, or website.

The SPOT device successfully transmitted a test SOS message from a meadow with a clear view of the sky, which then led to the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control Duty Officer being notified of the SOS within 3 minutes. The SOS testing scenario was on a prescribed pile burn under the control of the area interagency fire management unit and the plan was for the Duty Officer to contact the interagency dispatch center regarding the SOS and have them establish radio contact with the unit in distress. Unfortunately, the phone system at the dispatch center was down during the test and no notification could be made. The CoE recommends that for mission-critical applications like wildland fire, the SOS feature be tied directly into relevant computer-aided dispatch systems—a complex requirement for interagency centers that frequently host firefighters from off-unit and from a variety of agencies.

Garmin inReachTo determine the utility of the satellite messengers for personnel tracking, six field trials were conducted—two each in minimal, moderate, and heavy forest canopy. For each level of canopy, one test was conducted in rolling terrain and one in rugged terrain. These tests sought to establish the rate at which the location of a firefighter walking the perimeter of a simulated 100-acre fire with both devices set on a 5-minute tracking interval would be known to a supervisor watching in real-time via an Internet connection.

The CoE determined that both devices can transmit location information successfully with minimal delays when used under minimal and moderate forest canopies. However, under a heavy forest canopy the devices experienced difficulties. The SPOT device failed to transmit 20% of points and the inReach device took more than 5 minutes to transmit 50% of points (and during one test, failed to transmit 35% of points). The CoE recommends shortening the tracking interval when operating under heavy forest canopies to increase the odds of successful transmissions and cautions against relying solely on these devices to achieve situational awareness for firefighters operating under heavy forest canopies.

Florida Forest Service tracks the location of firefighters

A Firefighter on the White Draw Fire in South Dakota, June 29, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert
A Firefighter on the White Draw Fire in South Dakota, June 29, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert

We have written several times 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. Last month we told you about a system the Florida Forest Service is installing in their radio systems that tracks the location of firefighters. The Orlando Sentinel has an article about this system which provides a few more details. Below is an excerpt:

…To cut through the fog and friction, the Florida Forest Service has been rolling out its Asset Tracker System, equipping all of the nearly 400 bulldozers and fire engines statewide with GPS receivers and radio transmitters. System software will be installed in the laptops of nearly 60 supervisors.

Ralph Crawford, assistant chief of forest protection, said the largely home-built system will cost nearly $2 million but won’t have major, ongoing costs because it doesn’t rely on cellphone or Internet service.

Among the first crews equipped with tracking units were those responding to the Blue Ribbon Fire. But the system was still new, and only one of the ill-fated bulldozers had a location transmitter.

Since then, the system has been refined, and its capabilities are becoming more apparent, said John Kern, a deputy chief of field operations.

Every 30 seconds, the units blurt out an electronic warble, confirming that a packet of data containing unit identification, location, speed and direction had been transmitted by a 40-watt radio able to reach supervisor laptops within 2 miles.

The system doesn’t provide a complete picture of a wildfire; the blaze, for example, isn’t outlined on maps depicted on laptop screens.

But Kern said supervisors are learning to correlate the GPS tracking data with their knowledge of tactics used when fighting fires with bulldozers. Supervisors also will know where to direct a helicopter to drop water should trouble occur.

“If one of our guys calls in, ‘I’m stuck and about to be burned over,’ we’ll know where to go,” Kerns said.


Thanks and a hat tip go out to Kraig

Report released on Schoolhouse Fire ATV fatality

position of ATV after accident

The U.S. Forest Service has released a “Learning Review Report” for the All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) accident on the Schoolhouse Fire in New Mexico that killed firefighter Token Adams. You may have followed the search for Mr. Adams, who was missing for a week before his body was found on September 6, 2013.

The report is very well written and appears to discuss in detail numerous issues directly and indirectly related to the accident. It does not use, like the first Yarnell Hill Fire report, dozens of the latest in-vogue buzz words that are in fashion this week in the human behavior community. (It only uses a few.) The report covers real issues that firefighters, and especially firefighters who operate ATVs, can relate to.

It does not place blame on anyone, and from the evidence presented, this seems appropriate, in that no one really made any serious mistakes that would normally have been avoided. All of the required personal protective equipment, training, and qualifications were in place.

The accident occurred as Mr. Token was searching for a reported fire on an ATV, as he attempted to go up a short 30 percent grade, a slope easily traversed on an ATV. A tire slipped on a rock that may have been partially hidden by pine needles, causing the center of gravity to shift. The ATV began to roll, causing Mr. Token to either jump or fall off. The ATV rolled over Mr. Token, hit a tree and then settled back on him. The rear cargo rack landed on his neck, impacting just below his full-face helmet, and he died instantly.

The video below uses some surprising techniques to illustrate how the accident occurred.

Two items listed in the lessons learned analysis generated further discussion in the report:

ATV safety culture

In the course of the search, line officers spent a lot of time in the field with employees talking about the use of ATVs in the Forest Service. The employees shared their experiences concerning close calls and minor accidents involving ATVs which had not been reported. Several of these instances were shocking to the line officers. who had no experience on ATVs. The employees thought that if these numerous incidents had been reported the agency would have banned ATVs, which were thought to be extremely useful in accomplishing their jobs. After these revelations, the line officers were stunned, and not sure what the Lesson should be. They didn’t want to make an uninformed knee-jerk decision, and felt the need to obtain a deeper understanding of ATV risks.

I can understand this culture completely. While scouting a very large planned prescribed fire on an ATV, it rolled 90 degrees. I stepped off, uninjured, as it ended up on its side. I pushed the undamaged ATV back onto its tires, started it up and continued evaluating the prescribed fire. Of course I did not report it to anyone, including the other person traveling ahead of me on another ATV.

There are probably hundreds of similar non-injury unreported ATV mishaps that occur every year in land management agencies.

Location reporting devices

Example of a Satellite Emergency Notification Device. Photo by Bill Gabbert

While radios and cell phones can be very useful in most cases to call for help in the case of an accident, there are times when an employee is in an area where there is no reception. Or, as in the case of this ATV accident, the victim is incapacitated and can’t make a call. While a real-time automatic location tracking device would not have saved Mr. Adams, since he died instantly, it would have made a difference to the 200+ searchers and his family who spent a week looking for him.

In 2012 we wrote about the USFS’ solicitation to buy $1.2 million worth of Satellite Emergency Notification Devices (SEND). The agency purchased 6,000 of them. This is not enough for every employee, and one was not used by Mr. Token that day. These hand-held consumer-quality devices are better than nothing, but it is a very unprofessional attempt to enhance the safety of field personnel. We can do better.

I have written before 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.

The Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety, as I envision it, would enable firefighters’ radios 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 or desktop computer) that would be monitored by a dispatcher, Safety Officer, Branch Director, Operations Section Chief, Branch Director, 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.

New protocol for accident reports?

The report was “the product of the Coordinated Response Protocol (CRP) Team convened by the Chief of the U. S. Forest Service”, and referred to the “Draft CRP Guide (9/19/2013)”. That date is two weeks after Mr. Token was found, and is 10 days before the first report on the Yarnell Hill Fire was released. This process, the report says, attempts to “minimize bias in the way we approach data gathering, synthesis, analysis and sensemaking”. And, it “integrates the accident investigation process with employee health and wellness, law enforcement investigations and other actions taken in response to a serous accident”.

We asked Jennifer Jones, a Public Affairs Specialist for the U.S. Forest Service in Boise, if we could get a copy of the new protocol. She replied:

According to Steve Schlientz, Director of the Office of Safety and Occupational Health, Washington Office, U.S. Forest Service, the guide has undergone extensive revision and is still under development. It is not expected to be completed until late spring/early summer this year and we can’t release the guidebook until it is completed and approved.

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.

Yarnell Hill Fire report released

Granite Mountain Hotshots

(Originally published at 11:19 MDT, September 28, 2013; updated at 6 p.m. September 28, 2013. Observations after reading the report are at the bottom of this article.)

The Arizona State Forestry Division has released the Serious Accident Investigation report of the Yarnell Hill Fire, which on June 30, 2013, killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. It was produced by a very large cast of characters, 18 core Team Members, 17 Support Team Members, and 19 Subject Matter Experts, for a total of 54 people.

The report found:

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.

Yarnell Hill fire
Air Attack’s photo of the Yarnell Hill fire at 7:24 p.m. June 29, 2013

A news conference about the report was live-streamed by at least two Phoenix area television stations. In the question and answer period several national news organizations as well as local media asked questions of the five-person panel which consisted of the Arizona State Forester, two people from the investigation team, and two officers from the Prescott Fire Department.

You can download the report (6Mb file) and some “Frequently Asked Questions” about the investigation.

Below is a 21-minute video released by the investigation team today, which they described as a “A brief overview of the Yarnell Hill Fire Investigation report.” Much of it comes word for word from the report but it makes effective use of Google Earth to provide an overview of the geography of the fire.

Granite Mountain Hotshot Christopher MacKenzie shot the two video clips below shortly after 4:00 p.m. on June 30, 2013. These are the last images of the hotshots before they died. The video was unexpectedly made available today for the first time by the Prescott Daily Courier, which has an article about how the video and other photos of the fire were found.

Our observations after reading the report and viewing the press conference and the question and answer session.

The official report commissioned by the Arizona State Forestry Division, a case of them investigating themselves, did not break much new ground. There was little of a negative nature written about the crew or their employer, the Prescott Fire Department, which was barely mentioned. The Granite Mountain Hotshots were fully qualified, staffed, and trained and they were on day 13 of a permitted 14 days in a row of fighting fire. And, there was “no indication of negligence, recklessness actions, or violations of policy or protocol”.

Why did the Granite Mountain 19 leave the “black”?

The investigators emphasized that they were unable to answer one of the most-asked questions about the fatalities — why the crew left the safety of the already burned area, the black, to attempt to walk 1.6 miles mostly through unburned brush to another safety zone, the Boulder Springs Ranch. They came to within 0.38 miles of their destination when they encountered one of the heads of the fire that had wrapped around the ridge to their left in the box canyon and was headed toward them, cutting off their path probably much to their surprise. Click the map below to see a larger version of the wind at the deployment site.

Wind at the Yarnell Hill Fire

No one knew where the crew was in relation to the fire

There was confusion about the location of the crew. Other firefighters thought they had either remained safely in the black where they had been for a while, or they had headed north to another safety zone. But instead, they traveled south. When they reported that they were entrapped and were deploying their fire shelters, no one knew where they were. Finally they told Air Attack they were on the “south side”, but even though a DC-10 air tanker was orbiting and ready to drop on them, airborne personnel could not find them, either due to heavy smoke or because they were looking in the wrong place. But under the extreme wind and fire conditions, it is unlikely that air support would have helped the firefighters very much.

Improving situational awareness

This is another fire, like the Esperanza Fire, where if the fire overhead, such as a Division Supervisor, Operations Section Chief, or Safety Officer, had known the location of the personnel on the fire in relation to the real-time spread of the fire, it could have saved lives — 24 on these two fires alone.

It is irresponsible for the wildland fire agencies to continue to do nothing to improve the situational awareness of firefighters, which has proved fatal to too many of them.

We have written about this several times before. Many local fire departments, EMS divisions, and police units have the ability to send location data to dispatchers. If the analog or digital ground-based radio systems being used today can’t handle this task in remote areas, then use a satellite-based system. The U.S. Forest Service asked for proposals to purchase thousands of little location devices last year, and adding high tech video systems to air attack ships could help. We have also written about a device we called a Firefighter’s Emergency Situational Awareness Device, a FESAD.

One of the recommendations in the report was to “review current technology that could increase resource tracking, communications, real time weather, etc.” The Q&A panel today said, in response to a question, that the surviving family members of the 19 Hotshots strongly suggested while being briefed this morning that tracking systems for firefighters be utilized.

Very Large Air Tanker not ordered because of “steep terrain”

The information that the state of Arizona released on July 16 about the resources deployed on the fire said a DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker (VLAT) was in Albuquerque and available on June 29, but was not ordered due to Air Attack’s concern about its effectiveness in steep terrain and inability to deliver retardant before cut-off time. The way this was addressed in today’s report was “ICT4 declines the VLAT offer at 1750 [June 29] based on fire conditions.” There was nothing about “steep terrain”, which didn’t exist on the fire to the extent that it would severely limit the effectiveness of a DC-10 VLAT. In fact, the next day, June 30, they used the hell out of both DC-10s, dropping over 88,000 gallons in 8 flights. A recommendation in today’s report was to “…develop a brief technical tip for fire supervisors/agency administrators on the effective use of VLATs.”

Air tanker drops on Yarnell Hill Fire
Air tanker drops on Yarnell Hill Fire, June 29 and 30, 2013.

The DC-10s may have been effective on June 29 when the fire was still small, but by the time they both arrived on June 30, the day of the entrapment, the wind event was making it difficult for anything dropped from the air to slow down the fire — too much heat, and too much wind blowing the retardant away before it hit the target.

Aerial Supervision Module taking on too many roles?

During the time of the entrapment the roles of Air Attack and Lead Plane were filled by a single aircraft called an Aerial Supervision Module (ASM), coordinating all of the aerial firefighting, directing air traffic, preventing aircraft from bumping into each other, developing tactics, AND serving as Lead Plane, physically leading the air tankers into their targets about 200 feet above the ground. The Lead Plane duties limited their ability to perform full Air Attack responsibilities over the fire at the same time. The report said,  “ASM was too busy handling multiple duties to communicate with the crew just prior to the deployment”.

One of the recommendations in the report is to request the National Wildfire Coordinating Group to develop guidance to identify at what point is it necessary to separate the ASM and Air Attack roles to carry out required responsibilities for each platform.

No overwhelming force

The ordering and use of ground and aerial firefighting resources was less than aggressive on June 29, the day before the tragedy when the fire was still small. The only air tankers used that day were two single engine air tankers, and for only part of the day, dropping a total of 7,626 gallons. After being released, they were requested again by Air Attack, but dispatch only allowed one to respond to the fire, wanting to keep one in reserve in case there were other fires. General Norman Schwarzkopf’s philosophy when confronting the enemy was to use “overwhelming force”. This strategy also is effective when confronting a wildfire. Overwhelming force for a short amount of time can prevent megafires burning for weeks, consuming many acres, dollars, and sometimes homes and lives.