Better technology, equipment expected to increase protection
Firefighters would wear GPS devices that track their location. Maps of fire boundaries would be updated in real time. And information about the risk of mudslides would be available earlier, enabling timely preventive measures.
Those are just some of the safety features that will be required if the comprehensive public-lands bill passed in Congress last month is signed into law.
The Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act is one component of the massive lands bill. Introduced by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) in January 2018, it provides for technology that will increase safety for firefighters and communities affected by wildfire.
The wildfire technology act would mandate various high-tech tools, some brand-new and others in existence for some time, according to a Senate report on the bill. Some aspects of the legislation would kick in right away, but others would be implemented over the next several years.
The requirement for all firefighters working on large fires to wear GPS locators — whether they’re with federal, state or local crews — would start in the 2021 fire season.
Firefighters currently use maps updated once a day. But under the technology act, by the 2020 fire season, drones carrying infrared sensors would map the spread and edges of a wildfire to provide accurate, real-time updates to fire crews throughout the day.
“The combination of real-time mapping and GPS locators has been referred to by firefighters as ‘the Holy Grail of wildland firefighting safety,’” said Cantwell.
The act also requires updated decision-support software to track and monitor decisions made by wildfire management agencies. The system would alert federal officials if decisions endangered crews, deviated from plans, or would be ineffective in meeting fire-suppression goals, according to a summary by Cantwell’s staff.
U.S. Forest Service meteorologists would get immediate access — starting this year — to satellite data from NASA and federal labs to predict the geographic areas where large wildfires are most likely. Having this information earlier would enable agencies to preposition firefighters and other emergency personnel, such as staff with Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Another provision set to go into effect this year would inform firefighters and the public about smoke and unhealthy air quality so people could plan and take necessary precautions.
The Forest Service would get access to a NASA database that would give them a head start in assessing areas at highest risk for mudslides and floods after a wildfire. Supporters of the legislation estimate that this data could save a week in determining where to install erosion-protection measures — a crucial factor in their ability to protect the public, according to the summary by Cantwell’s staff.
In an address to the House, Cantwell stressed the critical importance of GPS-location data in protecting fire crews. After-action reports on wildfires have shown that front-line firefighters don’t always know exactly where a fire is, she said. And safety officers don’t always know where firefighters are, a lapse that has contributed to injuries because of delays in locating entrapped firefighters, she said.
The act also includes an expanded database to track on-the-job injuries and deaths among wildland firefighters, from causes including fire, smoke, hazards on the fire line, and from vehicle and aviation accidents. Having better data about activities that cause the most injuries can be used to improve safety training and protective measures, according to the Senate report.
Technology for monitoring fires and firefighting resources has existed for years, and some systems are already in use by state and local agencies, according to an article about the legislation in Wildfire Today, a journal of wildfire news and opinion. The military uses similar technology to track its service people, according to the article.
The legislation establishes a timeline for some provisions, but others are open-ended. All the requirements are subject to appropriations.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that implementing the firefighting technology act wouldn’t significantly increase costs for the federal government.
A 2017 analysis by the Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting found that GPS tracking would cost about $1,500 a year, per firefighter, depending on the device and interval of use. The Forest Service has already purchased 6,000 GPS tracking devices, according to the Senate report on the act.
The lands bill passed by wide, bipartisan margins in the Senate and House. Pres. Trump is expected to sign the bill before the end of March, according to Ben Marvin-Vanderryn, Cantwell’s deputy press secretary. Trump doesn’t have the option of vetoing individual parts of the bill, he said.