In September during the late stages of the Caldor Fire which burned about a quarter-million acres near South Lake Tahoe, California an interagency team conducted a pilot deployment of location tracking and common operating picture technologies. They tested three different systems that track hardware mounted on vehicles or carried by personnel. They also evaluated real time video shot by an aircraft and made instantly available to firefighters. Other pilot projects were conducted on the Tussock Fire in Arizona in May, and the Tamarack Fire which burned from California into Nevada in July.
These two categories of information comprise what we have called the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety — knowing the real time location of the fire and firefighters. Dozens, if not more, firefighters have been killed when this information was not known. If you think about firefighter entrapments, many could have been prevented if, for example, the Crew Boss, Division Supervisor, or Safety Officer had access to this real time situational awareness information.
Tracking fire resources
Legislation passed March 12, 2019 addressed this issue. The John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act mandated that the *five federal land management agencies “jointly develop and operate a tracking system to remotely locate the positions of fire resources for use by wildland firefighters, including, at a minimum, any fire resources assigned to Federal type 1 wildland fire incident management teams”, due by March 12, 2021.
The Bureau of Land Management has installed hardware for Location Based Services (LBS) which are now operational on more than 700 wildland fire engines, crew transports, and support vehicles. Vehicle position and utilization data are visually displayed via a web-based portal or mobile device application.
“The LBS system has been implemented program wide and used successfully during the 2021 fire year by wildland fire managers and dispatchers to view nearly real time locations of BLM firefighting vehicles,” said Jessica Gardetto, BLM Chief of External Affairs. “The system and its viewer are gaining widespread use, especially as LBS data is visible in the Enterprise Geospatial Portal (EGP). EGP is widely used in dispatch centers and by fire managers to display wildland fire information viewable by multiple agencies and accessible by all cooperators.”
The US Forest Service is thinking about it.
“Based on the results of these pilot programs, strategies are being prepared for the adoption of tracking units for all agency-owned or operated incident vehicles and interagency hotshot crews,” said Stanton Florea, Fire Communications Specialist for the Forest Service.
We asked the Forest Service if they had installed any tracking units, and if so how many, and did not receive an answer by publication.
(UPDATE December 10, 2021. Wildfire Today received additional information from Mr. Florea today. He said the Angeles National Forest in Southern California has installed location trackers on engines and other fire vehicles. He explained that, “The USDA Forest Service and its Dept. of Interior partners are working on developing an investment proposal to support the acquisition and operation of a system.”)
Real time mapping or video
A requirement of the Dingell Act was that was due by September 12, 2019 was to “…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.”
The first part of the requirement appears to have been largely met, Mr. Florea told Wildfire Today, with interagency policies, Certificates of Authorization (waivers) with the FAA, and NWCG standardized procedures for UAS utilization on incidents.
We asked Ms. Gardetto about the status of real time mapping. She said the agency has developed plans and protocols for real-time mapping processes, “but they remain constrained by connectivity in remote locations. Real-time mapping capacity is dependent on the availability of technology and subsequent deliverables, though again, real-time mapping services by UAS are not generally requested by incident management teams or fire management personnel.”
If the service does not exist, it is unlikely that any firefighting resources are going to request it during an incident.
We asked the US Forest Service about the status of providing real time mapping to firefighters on the ground and did not receive an answer by the time of publication.
(UPDATE December 10, 2021. Wildfire Today received additional information from Mr. Florea today. He mentioned, as we described below, the pilot deployment on the Caldor Fire of a military aircraft with Distributed Real Time Infrared (DRTI) live video. There was no indication of widespread or routine deployment of real time video.)
Findings from the pilot deployment on the Caldor Fire
The pilot deployment on the Caldor Fire of common operating picture technologies showed that the technology exists, and it is a matter of selecting the hardware and support systems that can make the information available to firefighters.
It is impressive from a technological perspective. The three tracking systems they worked with were:
- Everywhere Hub devices: Garmin inReach® Mini and inReach® SE+ send the data to the Enterprise Geospatial Portal (EGP) for viewing in a variety of tracking systems.
- Team Awareness Kit (TAK). A smartphone app that uses a phone’s GPS to track its user’s location, and displays the locations of other TAK app users.
- Vehicle trackers on BLM fire apparatus. Uses both cellular and satellite connections to send the vehicle’s location to the EGP.
On the Caldor Fire a military aircraft with Distributed Real Time Infrared (DRTI) program also was deployed and provided fire managers with the only source of live aerial video. DRTI is a collaboration between the U.S. Forest Service and the Air National Guard. This program provides real-time intelligence to fire managers using Air National Guard RC-26 aircraft equipped with high resolution thermal infrared and visible light cameras. These aircraft downlink a live video stream of wildland fires to National Guard soldiers on the ground, who can receive the video on a handheld military ROVER radio and display it on a tablet or television screen for fire managers to view.
Devices were issued on the east zone of the Caldor Fire, which hosted the pilot project by the Dingell Act Resource Tracking (DART) team. DART also conducted a pilot project deployment of location tracking and common operating picture technologies on the Tamarack Fire in northern California and Nevada in July, 2021.
DART focused on issuing Everywhere Hub devices to specific divisions on the east zone of the Caldor Fire in an attempt to saturate areas of fireline, ensuring that as many resources as possible in the areas were tracked. A total of 185,382 position reports were received during the 14-day DART deployment on the Caldor Fire.
Elon Musk’s Starlink system
The new technologies used included Starlink, a system developed by an Elon Musk company to eventually provide internet connectivity virtually anywhere in the world via a 23-inch satellite dish. (There is a newer version that is smaller and lighter, 12 by 19 inches weighing in at only 9.2 pounds.) The dish was tested by DART as a means to provide high-speed, low-latency internet service to remote areas of the Caldor Fire. They also used a Jagwire Server, which serves the aircraft’s live video stream to firefighters over cellular internet, and the Android Team Awareness Kit (ATAK) with an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Tool plugin. Speeds of 100-200 mbps down and 30 mbps up were found at the Starlink Dish.
*Five federal land management agencies involved in wildland fire are National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, and Forest Service.