Fires reveal challenges for technology
- By Judi Hasson
- Aug 30, 2000
Months ago, a frustrated research forester sent a memo to U.S. Forest headquarters
in Washington, D.C., complaining that computers used to simulate fires and
plot their direction were far too slow to handle any potential catastrophe.
Now, as he looks out from his office window in Missoula, Mont., Mark Finney
sees only smoke and clouds as the worst fires in a decade spread through
the American West, demolishing millions of acres of land.
Although federal and state authorities are using information technology
to a greater extent than ever before to fight the western blazes, Finney's
memo to John Arthur, the chief information officer for the fire service,
shows more can be done.
"If and when accidents occur, I believe that it would be difficult for the
Forest Service to make a convincing argument that it had met or seriously
attempted to meet the standard of using the best technology available for
decision-making," Finney wrote.
Forest Service officials acknowledge that the technology could be better,
but deny that the architecture being used to fight the blazes is inadequate.
"Researchers work on the leading edge of technology. They need to do that,"
said Mike Funston, who is in charge of the Forest Service's computer and
information systems. "It wouldn't be in the taxpayers' best interest to
buy state-of-the-art technology and equip all 30,000 people in the system
Joseph Leo, CIO for the Agriculture Department, which oversees the Forest
Service, said information technology has made major inroads this season
in fighting fires.
At the Kansas City, Mo., National Information Technology Center, which is
run by USDA, a multiagency effort is under way to use e-mail and the Internet
to help firefighters get the equipment and personnel they need to disperse
to fires. The National Wildfire Coordinating Group is online at: www.nwcg.gov.