Pilot project on Caldor Fire tested resource tracking and mesh communications

Real-time mapping was also demonstrated

satellite-based resource tracking, Caldor Fire
Example of data from satellite-based location reports, Caldor Fire, September, 2021. Dingell Act Resource Tracking (DART) team image.

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.

BLM tracker
Tracker (white box) installed on BLM engine. BLM photo.

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.

Data flow of video and TAK data, Caldor Fire
DART team.

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

Starlink satellite dish providing internet service on the Caldor Fire. BLM photo.
Starlink satellite dish providing internet service on the Caldor Fire. BLM photo.

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.

Congress passes funding bill for federal firefighting agencies

The legislation pushes, again, for the implementation of tracking system for fire resources, due by March 12, 2021

Washington, DC
Washington, DC

Both houses of Congress passed a 5,600-page omnibus spending package Monday night to fund numerous programs that included the Departments of Agriculture and Interior along with COVID-19 relief. It the bill is signed by the President it will fund the agencies during the fiscal year that began October 1, 2020.

There are no major changes in the appropriations for wildland fire activities that employ approximately 15,000 forestry and range technicians whose primary duties are fighting wildfires. But there are some interesting issues that were highlighted, not in the text of the bill itself, but in the “explanatory statement” that elaborates on Congress’ oversight of the fire programs in the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Firefighting Technologies

Congress reminded the five agencies that the John D. Dingell, Jr. Natural Resources Management Act that passed overwhelmingly in both houses almost two years ago requires that by March 12, 2021 they develop and operate a tracking system to remotely locate the positions of fire resources. According to a press release by Senator Maria Cantwell at the time, 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. By September 8, 2019 they were also supposed to develop plans for providing real-time maps of the location of fires. We have referred to knowing the real time location of both the fire and firefighters working on the fire as the “Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety.”

Apparently worried that the five agencies may be dragging their feet in following the requirements in the bill (which became law), Congress very, very politely issued a reminder in the explanatory statement:

The Committee encourages increased investment in these technologies within the funds provided for Forest and Rangeland Research and for preparedness activities in Wildland Fire Management. The Committee encourages prioritizing the use of commercial, off-the-shelf solutions, including mobile MESH networking technology, that provide situational awareness and interoperable communications between federal, state, and local firefighting agencies.

Longer contracts for firefighting aircraft?

The explanatory statement has a surprisingly lengthy section that directs the Forest Service and the DOI to submit a report within 90 days that lays out the considerations of awarding 10-year contracts for aircraft available for wildland fire suppression activities. If the President signs the bill today, the report would be due March 22, 2021.

The Next Generation 3.0 contracts for five large air tankers announced in October are for only one year with the possibility of up to four more years at the discretion of the FS.

Fire Aviation has more details about the possibility of longer contracts.

Move the Forest Service Fire and Aviation section out of State and Private Forestry

More than half of the entire budget of the Forest Service goes to Fire and Aviation Management (FAM). But if you were trying to find FAM on the agency’s organization chart, it may take a while.

Organization Chart, USFS
Organization Chart, US Forest Service. (From USFS website, December, 22, 2020)

The first version of the appropriations bill introduced in the Senate required that FAM be moved out of State and Private Forestry and put in it’s own branch, with the Director of FAM becoming a Deputy Chief:

Commensurate with the modernized budget structure included in this Act, the Forest Service shall realign its Deputy Chief Areas to conform to the appropriations provided herein, including the creation of a Deputy Chief for Fire and Aviation to administer the Wildland Fire Management appropriation, within one year of enactment of this Act.

In November the National Association of State Foresters wrote a letter to the House and Senate appropriations leadership opposing the concept:

While we agree more must be done to minimize the threat of catastrophic wildfire, we are concerned that establishing a Deputy Chief for Fire and Aviation would divert valuable resources  from land management activities that reduce the threat of wildfire, only to establish additional bureaucracy around wildfire suppression… Establishing a Deputy Chief for Fire and Aviation is tantamount to building a “fire agency” and therefore contrary to the intent of the “Wildfire Funding Fix,” which Congress passed to free up funding for more active forest management.

The final version of the bill that passed Monday night eased off on that requirement, suggesting the agency just think about it:

The Committees are interested in data and recommendations relating to any changes that could be made to improve the representation of Wildland Fire Management leadership under this structure and the potential creation of a new Deputy Chief for Fire and Aviation. The Committees recognize that wildland fire related activities touch every aspect of the agency and believe that providing the fire function with a senior leadership role at the Service will improve coordination and better represents the role fire plays in agency budgeting and decision making.

Last week before the new language became available Monday night I checked with some fire management folks, asking their thoughts about the requirement, at the time, of promoting FAM to be their own branch with a Deputy Chief for Fire and Aviation. Here are their responses, in some cases edited for brevity:

Tom Harbour, former Director of FAM for the Forest Service:

The language is controversial. Specific organizational language like this is not popular with any federal organization. Based on just budget, the FAM program has been “Deputy Chief eligible” for a couple decades, but more goes into significant organization change decisions than budget. Five different Chiefs (Bosworth, Kimball, Tidwell, Tooke, Christiansen) have had the budget facts in front of them and have decided NOT to make a change.  The most obvious immediate question is what would happen with S&PF programs, and what happens with the important relationships with State Foresters?

Greg Greenhoe, former Deputy Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the Northern Region, USFS

I really don’t know enough about the issue to have an opinion. I can understand the concern of the State Foresters with Fire Management leaving State and Private. But even when I was still working I always thought it was strange that Fire was under State and Private. I can see that some folks would be concerned that the largest single budgeted function in the FS doesn’t have its own Deputy Chief.

Kelly Martin, former Fire Chief of Yosemite National Park, National Park Service

Due to the fact that the wildland fire budget for suppression and preparedness is an overwhelming part of the entire USFS budget, this new proposed Deputy Chief of Fire and Aviation Management (FAM) position reporting directly to the Chief of the USFS leads to better accountability between the Chief of the USFS and the Fire and Aviation program.  Much needed modern reforms and developing a “National Fire Plan 2.0” will need to be closely linked between the Chief of the USFS and the Dep Chief of FAM. State and Private Forestry will continue to be an important part of the USFS overall program with or without the Fire Director working directly for the Deputy Chief of SPF.

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