How tech could improve wildland firefighting, and protect lives

How tech could improve wildland firefighting, and protect lives

08 September 2015

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USA — The deaths of three wildland firefighters Aug. 19 in Okanogan County, Wash., is both painful and tragic. Unfortunately the deaths of these firefighters is only the latest in a series of firefighter deaths from wildfires.

On June 28, 2013, nineteen Arizona firefighters lost their lives when winds suddenly shifted in the Yarnell Hill fire. An airtanker carrying flame retardant was directly overhead at the time of the tragedy, but radio communications were both spotty and overloaded.

The Thirty-Mile Fire in 2001 in Okanogan County claimed the lives of four firefighters. The firefighters violated several rules of wildland firefighting, but radio communications difficulties also prevented nearby helicopter support from reaching them.

How can modern technology help in fighting these fires and keeping firefighters out of harm’s way? Every year about 20 firefighters lose their lives from a variety of causes while fighting wildfires.

Mapping and Location

Tom Zbyszewski, Andrew Zajac,and Richard Wheeler, died when the Okanogan Complex fire suddenly reversed direction on Aug. 19. They tried to speed away in a truck, but apparently crashed driving over an embankment and then the fire overtook them. At least one other brush truck carrying firefighters stayed on high ground to escape.

This crash was possibly preventable if these firefighters had good terrain maps to avoid the embankment. Of course, as a fire races down, the last thing anyone has time to do is pull out and consult a paper map to determine an escape route – especially since many of the routes might be blocked by the fire.

However, modern technology could display a map on a heads up display in the vehicle or in “virtual reality” glasses such as Google Glass which shows not just the terrain but also the real-time, up-to-the-second, location of the fire.

Such technology is being researched, as envisioned by Pacific Northwest National Lab (PNNL) under contract from the Department of Homeland Security. This video graphically illustrates its use.

Mapping fires today is a relatively slow process. Services such as the Geospatial Multi-Agency Coordination Group (GeoMAC) show fire perimeters, but the data comes from satellites and flyovers, and may be up to 24 hours old. Unpiloted aerial vehicles and sensors on the ground, as discussed below, will provide much more accurate and up-to-the minute maps.

Beyond mapping, every piece of firefighting equipment and every individual involved in the firefighting effort could, potentially, be located at every moment of the incident in real time. Every individual could wear GPS-enabled devices. This might be a complicated, special-purpose device GPS, but it could be as simple as a smart watch or wrist band such as a FitBit. Indeed, most firefighters already carry a smart phone (see video here) with GPS built-in. But there is no app or coordinated technology to geolocate all such devices.

Geolocating firefighters in real time would allow fire bosses and incident commanders monitoring wind patterns and weather conditions to instantly see danger and order firefighter evacuation, or perhaps divert air tankers with water or retardant to protect firefighters in danger.

Personal Monitoring

Beyond mapping, every piece of firefighting equipment and every individual involved in the firefighting effort could, potentially, be located at every moment of the incident in real time.
If we strap GPS devices onto individual firefighters, those same devices could monitor the vital signs of each individual. Incident commanders and medical personnel could be alerted to firefighters experiencing serious dehydration or other ailments, and would also be alerted if firefighters are suddenly moving rapidly along the terrain, an indication they are running from an out-of control blaze.

While physiological monitoring of first responders is actively being researched, many researchers envision “wearables” sensors embedded throughout the uniforms of first responders. Such sensors could monitor air quality, hazardous chemical or biological materials, and other hazards around the individual. In fact, the federal Department of Homeland Security has an active program — “first responder of the future” — to research all sorts of technology which might support responders.

Situational Awareness – Sensors

Fire crews in California are experimenting with hardened video cameras that show the fire situation and weather/wind conditions at critical locations within the blaze itself. These are expensive devices. Another approach is to build and deploy a large number of inexpensive “throwaway” sensors and cameras, which would be consumed as the fire overtakes them, but would send back real-time telemetry and video in the meantime.

MIT and others are experimenting with “swarms” of sensor robots which move themselves and might be deployed or dropped over fires to monitor critical locations and return video and telemetry. Research is also ongoing with “small aerial vehicles” or SAVs with sensors which can map areas and also do air quality monitoring.


The United States Army and Department of Defense are actively working on robots for carrying heavy loads through difficult terrain. Such robots could also be used in disasters such as clearing debris for search and rescue after an earthquake. Robots – essentially ground-pounder drones – could also do difficult work of preparing fire containment lines, to keep humans out of harm’s way.

This technology appears to be quite a few years away, looking at results of this summer’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) robotics challenge. As Erik Sofge wrote in Popular Science: “… the biggest news … seems to be a parade of (images) of robots falling. One bot fell so hard, its head popped off.” And this happened on a closed course in a stadium rather than the rugged terrain of the Cascade Mountains.

We will need human firefighters for years to come.

Unpiloted Aerial Vehicles (“Drones”)

UAV’s show great promise in many fields such as agriculture or Amazon’s package delivery. The debut of UAV’s on the firefighting scene came this year, unfortunately, when air tankers were grounded in California fearing mid-air collisions with rogue drones. San Bernadino County offered a $75,000 reward to find and prosecute the operators.

Used officially, drones will significantly improve public safety, especially in remote and rugged terrain.
Insitu ScanEagle drone being readied for launch (Image courtesy of Insitu.)

In late August, the National Park Service tested a ScanEagle drone from Boeing’s Insitu subsidiary, headquartered in Bingen, Wash., on its long-burning Paradise Fire in Olympic National Park. Celeste Prescott, information officer for the Paradise fire team, said the drone was used as an “eye in the sky” to guide water drops and map hot spots and the fire perimeter.

But UAVs could do much more. Larger drones could do hot-spot water and retardant drops flying close to the ground while minimizing risk to human pilots. UAVs could also give early warning to the rapid shifts in direction of fires which have claimed many lives.


Many of these same capabilities might be used to support and help the residents of fire areas and the county commissioners, mayors and other elected officials who are leading their communities. While most people probably don’t want to constantly broadcast their GPS location and health status, during level 1 and 2 evacuation orders every civilian in an area might be monitored, with their permission.

Officials could require anyone entering an area for camping, fishing, hunting and hiking during fire season to carry some sort of device to allow emergency two-way communications or at least report locations. Personal locator beacons have been around since 2003, and can locate individuals to within about 100 meters. SPOT global phones, which use satellites, are also available, but pricey.

But almost everyone today carries a commercial mobile phone or smart phone. An ideal solution to communications during fire season is to use these devices which are already in everyone’s pocket.

Wireless Communications

The common thread in all this tech is radio communications. In urban areas like Seattle or Spokane we are accustomed to being in constant communications thanks to our devices. Between cell towers and almost ubiquitous Wi-Fi and now antennas or small cell sites inside buildings, it is rare (although not impossible) to be without at least “one or two bars” of signal. With 4G wireless — long term evolution or LTE cell technology — such networks are really high speed, allowing two-way video as well as a wide variety of high-definition apps.

But the rough terrain of wildland fires rarely has cell towers. And when it does, often a single tower supports all the cellular communications from all providers for an area. The loss of that tower renders the entire area without communications, as happened this summer near Pateros.

Ideally, cell systems could be rapidly deployed in an area where fires occur. Commercial companies have “cell on wheels” (COW), “cell on light truck” (COLT) and similar sites to deploy during disasters. But these solutions require roads and, typically, a lot of fuel to power the cell site.

More lightweight solutions are in the works. Motorola, among others, is developing an entire cell phone system in a package the size of a Kleenex box. This device includes the central switching computer (an “evolved packet core”) as well as the electronics for an LTE cell site and all the related software. Such a device still needs some electrical power as well as a radio and an antenna, but the whole site could fit in a backpack for transport to a mountaintop.

Such small cell systems could also be deployed on tethered balloons or drones circling above the wildfire. Boeing recently patented a tethered drone designed to stay aloft for long periods of time. Cell sites mounted on drones or balloons have some issues, of course, such as the ferocious winds sometimes generated by fires, as well as potential mid-air interference with planes and helicopters doing water drops.

Funding such technologies is also an issue, as commercial telecommunications carriers would not make much money from such investments. Congress recognized this problem in 2012, and funded the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) with $7 billion to build a nationwide LTE network specifically for public safety. The FirstNet plan envisions a wide variety of deployable cell sites for remote areas. Some of these technologies are now being tested in New Jersey and Boulder, Colorado. A State of Washington program, Washington OneNet, is actively engaging fire and police agencies in designing FirstNet specifically to address the needs of responders in Washington, including coverage for wildland fires.

In a few years it will be common for incident commanders to rapidly position “bubbles” of wireless connectivity above raging fires and other incidents.

“There’s An App for That”

All this potential technology will be helpful, but needs common apps used by all responders to make it useful. It is potentially dangerous for different fire crews to use different mapping and GPS apps when trying to coordinate their efforts.

There’s precedent for standardizing apps. After the horrific 1999 Columbine school shootings, the Washington State Legislature, in 2003, authorized deployment of a common application for school building diagrams and maps. This app, Rapid Responder, was developed by a Kirkland-based company, Prepared Response, and is now used by over 2,000 schools in Washington. The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC) trains law enforcement in using the web-based interface.

Some other apps are widely used on a defacto basis. Active 911, developed by a Philomath, Oregon, company, is used by some volunteer firefighting agencies and search-and-rescue organization to call out and support their volunteer responders.

But there are no standards for mapping or geolocation or paging or almost any other app used by emergency response. So as responders converge on the scene of a wildfire or any other incident (like, say, the Seahawks victory parade), there are no common apps they use to coordinate their response and manage the incident.

The 25,000-member Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO), a group representing those who run 911 centers worldwide, has cataloged over 200 apps in use by responders and the public for emergency communications. APCO has stringent guidelines for the apps in its catalog, so there are probably hundreds or thousands more which are available for download. No one really reviews these apps for usability or cybersecurity issues.

A program or center to evaluate and standardize apps in use by responders is urgently needed.


Personal communications technology has rapidly developed over the past 10 years, ignited by the introduction of the Apple iPhone in 2007, along with its App Store. But, to a great extent, public safety agencies and other responders to daily incidents and major disasters have not yet developed the techniques and standards to really use this technology effectively.

The “wireless technology train” is roaring down the tracks. Personal monitoring, sensors, drones, and “bubbles” of wireless are coming to improve the safety of firefighters, other responders and the public, as wildfires continue to rage and as we face other threats from natural disasters and terrorism.

In the end, it will still be the experience and training of the “boots on the ground” — the fire crews, individual firefighters, police officers and paramedics – who actually protect life and property. They will need the best, latest technologies available to keep them safe, too.

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