High-Tech Firefighting

Paula LabrotBy Paula Labrot      May 28, 2021

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Fire spotting and firefighting have gone high tech in keeping with the cyber-times we live in. Given our latest episode with Santa Monica Mountain wildfires, it’s time to catch you up on the latest tools available to modern firefighters that range from earth to space and include the latest in AI (artificial intelligence) technology. This is an area in which ‘Big Data’ can be positive and downright helpful with a new arsenal for firefighting comprised of two familiar components: data collection and data analysis. A Little History The history of firefighters originated in ancient Egypt and third-century Rome when they used hooks, pickaxes, ladders, and ropes as equipment and brought their own water to the fire in buckets. Powerful pumps were also used which could reach a height of 20 to 30 meters. Water was drawn from public fountains, basins, and wells inside buildings. In 1672 the Dutch inventor, Jan Van der Heiden, invented the firehose. Constructed of flexible leather and coupled every 50 feet with brass fittings, the length and connections remain the standard to this day. The fire engine was developed by Richard Newsham of London in 1725. Pulled as a cart to the fire, these manual pumps were manned by teams of men and could deliver up to 160 gallons per minute. George Washington was a volunteer fireman and donated a fire engine to Alexandria, Virginia in 1774. Fire hydrants were invented in Philadelphia in the early 1800’s. Horse-drawn steam engines began to be used after 1860 and were followed by combustion fire engines in 1925 in the United States. Traditionally, fires are spotted, reported, fought, contained, and extinguished. Carolyn Said, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle states, “For decades, wildfires in remote regions were spotted by people in lookout towers who scanned the horizon with binoculars for smoke— a tough and tedious job.” The Osbourne Firefinder is a device used for nearly 100 years, accurately locating fires on a topographical map mounted on a rotating steel disc with attached brass sighting mechanisms. Firespotters reported potential danger by telephone, two-way radio, carrier pigeon, or Morse code signals with a mirror. Times have changed. Data Collection Today’s firefighters have a myriad of tools for sighting and accessing fires. The internet is a high-speed highway of information. According to Said, “…images from the cameras and satellites, along with footage captured by piloted and unpiloted aircraft and weather station data are vital components in the rapidly advancing technology for firefighters.” A webcam is a video camera that feeds or streams an image or video in real time to or through a computer network. Webcams on helicopters, drones, and other types of aircraft, as well as those on firemen’s helmets provide invaluable information. Thermal imaging is the use of special electronic equipment to create a picture based on the heat produced by a person or object. According to Firerescue1.com, thermal imaging “can more rapidly and accurately identify hot spots and the progress of the fire. A personal thermal monocular that fits in your pocket can scan large areas through darkness, glare, and haze to pinpoint hot spots before they flare up or warn firefighters who can’t see imminent dangers through the smoke. Airplanes are a primary source of data collection and the state’s CAL FIRE maintains the best fleet of firefighting aircraft in the United States. According to the agency, it uses OV-10s as the primary (aerial) command-and-control platform on wildland incidents. The air attack officer, a highly trained and experienced fire officer, coordinates with the incident commander on the ground, providing a unique aerial perspective on fire conditions, anticipated resource needs, and potential threats to life and property. The Air Attack Officer is also responsible for the safe coordination of all aerial resources and where to make retardant and water drops. The new generation of S70i CAL FIRE HAWK (Sikorsky) helicopters bring enhanced capabilities including flight safety, higher payloads, increased power margins, and night-flying capabilities. Air tankers, especially the approved-for-purchase C-130H Airtankers, are used for rapid initial attack delivery of fire retardant on wildland fires. The CH-47 Chinook helitanker is another, high-tech, networked, advanced firefighting asset. It can snorkel up 3,000 gallons of water from 69 Bravo reservoirs to drop in a single pass and return in a quick turn-around for the next payload. High-tech night-flying capabilities also make aerial firefighting possible after dark and in low-visibility smoke and fog. These helitankers will be added to the arsenals of LA, Orange, and Ventura counties on June 15. The CH-47 Chinook helitanker is another, high-tech, networked, advanced firefighting asset that can drop 3,000 gallons of water or retardant in a single pass. High-tech night-flying capabilities make aerial firefighting possible after dark and in low-visibility smoke and fog. These helitankers will be added to the arsenals of LA, Orange, and Ventura counties on June 15. Weather sensor stations supply information about temperature, humidity, wind direction and speed, invaluable in predicting the future path of a fire. Local websites like TCEP, Pulse Point and Nextdoor Topanga make vital information available to residents. Some new, cutting-edge equipment includes the A.F.A. exoskeleton suit that fits over a firefighter’s personal protective gear to increase firefighters’ performance in walking, running, and carrying by transferring the weight directly to the ground. A personal favorite piece of equipment is the invention of two George Mason University students, Seth Robertson and Viet Tran. Their sonic fire extinguisher puts out a fire with sound waves through a mobile subwoofer gun! Lower frequencies work! Go bass players! Data Analysis According to Joel A. Lane, Orange County Fire Authority/Air Attack Group Supervisor, the most important questions to be answered as rapidly as possible in a wildland fire are: Where is the fire? How big is the fire? Where is the fire going? From all the data-gathering equipment, including boots-on-the-ground humans with smart phones equipped with cameras and texting capabilities, a lot of information about a fire is fed into an amazing program called FIRIS—Fire Integrated Real-Time Intelligence System. The heart of FIRIS is WIFIRE—Workflows Integrating Collaborative Hazard Sciences. The heart of WIFIRE is Illkay Altintas who combines her expertise in workflow with data science and fire science in collaboration with the San Diego Super-Computer Center. Hpcwire.com reports, “cyber-infrastructure that connects real-time weather information, infrared images from fire planes, satellite maps of terrain and brush, and other data (may) predict what a seemingly fickle wildfire might do next. If you think that’s smart, WIFIRE also learns from past inaccuracies and quickly evolves its ability to predict fires with each bit of new data in real time.” Within minutes of arriving over a fire, a perimeter map becomes available. Hot spots are pinpointed. Point of origin may be determined. Maps of the projected path of the fire are rapidly made available as vegetation, structures, wind, and temperature are evaluated…in minutes! This helps commanders on the ground allocate manpower and resources and make real-time decisions about whom to evacuate. It is why my neighborhood (Post Office Tract), though closest to one fire edge, was not evacuated. Data analysis, baby! The Future of Firefighting We are learning to trust technology in these days of aggressive wildfires. It is in this kind of arena the truly good things about tech shine forth. Is the technology infallible…no, of course not. Who knows where an ember will actually land? Sometimes, up to five miles away! But seasoned fire fighters and experts in the field of fire science all agree that being able to stay ahead of a fire…by having a good idea of where it is going…we have a far better chance of containing the damage these infernos can cause. Meanwhile, thanks to all in the vast, collaborative network of dedicated people who gave us a happy ending to the Palisades Fire story. Vamos a ver!
Paula Labrot

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