Battling Wildfires In Real-Time with Technology
Oct 16, 2015 by Tom Joanes

This year has seen an unprecedented number of wildfires burning in the Pacific Northwest.  In fact, by summer’s end the National Interagency Fire Center, the nation’s support center for wildland firefighting, estimated that wildfires had burned 11 million acres in the U.S. That is an area larger than the size of the state of Maryland.

To battle these blazes the US Forest service relies on its National Incident Management Organization (NIMO), which dispatches incident management teams to set-up and operate command centers at the most formidable wildfires, those that can rage out of control for weeks at a time. Incident command centers are the key to conquering behemoth blazes because they employ the latest information technology to manage hundreds, sometimes thousands, of firefighters at base camp and in the field; and they serve as the hub for tactical planning and real-time decision making.

Establishing an incident command center is no simple task. It requires a small army of highly skilled and experienced command staff and vendors who can construct a base of operations at frequently remote locations within 24 hours of getting the order to do so. Think about that for a minute. Twenty-four hours is not a long time. Imagine you are the onsite guy who runs payroll for firefighters at a wildfire. It is 2:00pm on a Friday afternoon and you are gearing up for a relaxing weekend with the family when the call comes in to dispatch to a fire 300 miles away. By 5:00pm the next afternoon you are logging onto a computer set-up at the base of forest where 12 hours earlier the only light in the area came from the moon and a few fireflies!

This year at several incident command center locations across a half dozen states in the West, members of the National Wildland Incident Management Teams worked from laptops that were custom-imaged with the apps they need to decipher danger, opportunity and success in their battle against the raging fires. They tracked the fire using a series of apps that included GIS mapping, fire prediction tools and scientific calculators. Incident commanders whose duties require mobility worked from iPad Airs, ruggedized in LifeProof cases, as they surveyed the field and recorded their impressions. The data collected on the tablet was then transferred wirelessly to the command center where fire analysts use the information to update plans on-the-fly.

Without computers, printers, copiers, iPads and networking equipment in the wildfire incident command center, the threat to life and property in a record year for wildfires, like this one, would be all but untenable.  An incident command center outfitted with the latest office technology and tablets:

  • Allows the emergency command center to track and support firefighters and equipment digitally.
  • Provides a seamless network of communication between the command center and firefighters in the field.
  • Facilitates informed decision making on-the-fly by providing real-time analysis of conditions in the field.

Command Center Construction: Creating Something from Nothing

As mentioned earlier, construction of a wildfire incident command center would be exponentially more difficult, if not impossible, without a team of private industry vendors who supply the infrastructure at remote locations. There are the guys who bring in electricity, the guys who set up satellite communication and we are proud to be the guys who outfit the command center with the latest IT technology. For nearly two decades the Phoenix, Arizona office of SmartSource Rentals has worked tirelessly to support the National Wildland Incident Management Teams during wildfire season. We consider ourselves an extension of the US Forest Service’s IT team, going above and beyond standard operations to meet or exceed the high level of reliability and service NIMO demands.

During wildfire season, or whenever NIMO requires, SmartSource Rentals adjusts operations to:

  • Field telephone orders from the National Wildland Incident Management Teams 24 hours a day.
  • Custom package equipment for shipping according to the strict shipping requirements of NIMO.
  • Devise logistical plans that get the technology to the command post, no matter how remote, within 24 hours, 90 percent of the time.

A unique advantage SmartSource Rentals has in servicing the US Forest Service, aside from its top-notch team of technology and logistic experts, is ownership of the largest rental inventory available. We are able to leverage inventory across 23 field offices to fulfill NIMO orders without compromising inventory for our standard customers. Put another way, we’ve earned the trust of our Firefighter and Emergency Response clients simply because our team will always find a way to make things happen. We operate like an extension of their IT team. When they go all in, we go all in!

For more information, please contact the author at tjoanes@smartsourcerentals.com

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