Roth: Fighting forest fires

GPS-based system lets Forest Service keep track of firefighting aircraft

Robert Roth, an aviation specialist with the Forest Service, says knowing precisely where firefighting resources are at any given time can mean the difference between squelching a wildland fire or watching it race out of control.

As a former ground-based firefighter, he knows from experience that being able to call in a flying tanker to dump a load of water or fire retardant gives firefighters a priceless advantage. But first they need to know that a tanker is available.

With the radio-based control systems that most firefighters work with, such information is difficult to find. At best, the systems they use give approximate answers.

Drawing on his experience in the service’s aviation office in Missoula, Mont., Roth set out to design a precise system for tracking aircraft. It is known as the Automated Flight Following (AFF) system.

Roth designed the system to solve problems he had experienced with existing procedures for tracking aircraft. “The Forest Service had its own dispatch center, there was also a state dispatch center, and then the federal folks had their own geographic area dispatch, all working on different frequencies,” he said. “There were times when there were multiple aircraft going to the same fire, and the aircrews themselves weren’t even aware of it.”

Aircrews on mission flights are required to provide their location to dispatching centers by radio every 15 to 30 minutes. Theoretically, the dispatchers know where the aircraft are at any given time. But those procedures can break down.

Aircraft can travel a long way in 15 minutes, and the last reported location may be all but useless for tracking the craft. When firefighting crews are busy with other things, they may simply forget to call in on time. The mountainous terrain in which they often operate can block radio signals.

Now that Forest Service officials have begun using the AFF system, they hope to eliminate most of those problems.

Each aircraft that uses AFF automatically sends a unique Global Positioning System signal every one or two minutes to a satellite, which then transmits the data to a ground station. The data is moved to a server from which the aircraft’s position, along with other information about the craft, can be tracked by dispatchers using a browser-based program called Webtracker.

That kind of real-time, pinpoint location tracking often means the difference between life and death, said Larry Hindman, a regional aviation safety manager with the Forest Service.

An aircraft that crashed in Montana last year hadn’t reported its position, and search-and-rescue teams didn’t find it until the following day. There were three fatalities, and although survivors walked away, they didn’t get help until two days later.

“If AFF had been present, I feel we could have been there that evening” of the crash, Hindman said.

Forest Service officials expect that AFF will help them allocate resources faster and more efficiently. With radio tracking, it is difficult to know the precise location of aircraft or what types of aircraft are available. It’s even difficult to know what aircraft are in a neighboring firefighting unit’s territory and whether they might be a better resource for fighting a particular fire.

Combine that with a recent freeze in firefighting budgets and cuts in large air tanker contracts, and firefighters are faced with having to do more work with fewer resources. The effectiveness of a system like AFF, which promises much better direction of resources and cost savings, is immediately apparent.

“It gives us a much better ability to see who is using what aircraft and what they are being used for,” said Thomas Zimmerman, director of fire and aviation management for the Forest Service’s southwestern region.

“As people get used to it, I also think we’ll see people capitalizing on it in more ways than we know we can now,” he added.

Firefighters in British Columbia have been using a similar system for 10 years, Hindman said. Even though that system is not completely centered on satellite communications, it has already proved itself, he said.

“They’ve been able to show savings of $1 million a year on air tanker costs alone,” he said.

In many ways, Hindman said, Roth was probably the ideal person to be given the job of developing AFF. He has all of the organizational and technical skills, but it’s his earlier field experience that sets him apart.

“Bob started out as a firefighter, so he knows the needs of the people on the ground,” Hindman said. “We have a lot of people who are smart and well-intended, but they don’t have that kind of knowledge.”

Bumps in the road

Still, creating a new tracking system was no simple matter.

When Roth first made the suggestion four years ago to look into technology for more closely tracking aircraft, Forest Service officials agreed to it readily enough, but only if Roth would agree to become the director of a new group in the agency that would search for a national solution.

That is when the headaches began. Although he can look back on it now with satisfaction, Roth readily acknowledges he was naive at the beginning. “I thought it would be easy,” he said, “but I found that pulling it all together on a multiagency basis was hard. I didn’t understand the complexities involved with making something work on a national scale.”

He also encountered problems with getting potential users to understand that AFF would help them with firefighting and was not intended as a way for the government to keep tabs on them.

“In our community, there are a lot of free-spirit individuals,” Roth said. The Forest Service began outfitting its aircraft with AFF last year. Officials have set January 2006 as their deadline to complete the deployment. Roth is confident that the entire fleet of 1,500 aircraft will be outfitted within three years.

A few years from now, he said, AFF technology might also be used to improve safety by tracking vehicles and individual firefighters on the ground.

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