E-mail, e-commerce assist firefighters

The federal government has developed an arsenal of high-tech tools to fight

the worst wildfires in decades in the western United States.

Such applications as e-mail, e-commerce and electronic mapping have

played a role in nearly every aspect of the firefighting campaign, from

plotting the progress of fires to ordering supplies and even paying the

firefighters.

"Computers are being used more and more in fire camps, from business applications

for reports and ordering of equipment to [the Global Positioning System]

to infrared imagery," said Steve Jenkins, operations manager of the National

Interagency Fire Center's Incident Communications and Infrared Operations

Group in Boise, Idaho.

Among the innovations on the ground is an extensive e-mail system based

in Kansas City, Mo., run by the Agriculture Department and used by fire

dispatchers nationwide.

The National Information Technology Center (NITC) enables dispatchers

from the fire arena to send out messages when they need equipment or help

in a particular area. They can order equipment from federal warehouses located

across the country to be airlifted or trucked to a base camp within hours.

And time counts as fires continue to engulf huge tracts of land in the

West. Even six seconds of downtime for the server in Kansas City is critical

for personnel on the front lines, said Kathleen Rundle, associate chief

information officer for NITC. "Our job is to make sure that the servers

and the software on those servers stay up and running 24/7. Our job is to

provide the IT support for those systems," she said.

Joseph Leo, CIO for the USDA, which oversees the Forest Service, said information

technology has made major inroads this season in fighting fires. "If anyone

wanted assistance or help, in our view, the Forest Service is incredibly

confident to handle it," Leo said.

But the service is not alone. When firefighters want their paychecks and

vendors want to get paid on the spot, the National Business Center, run

by the Interior Department in Denver, is equipped to instantly distribute

cash.

The Civil Air Patrol has used satellite-based GPS and infrared surveys to

provide pictures of blazes engulfing forests in South Dakota and Wyoming.

Video stills are downloaded to a ground unit and then transmitted to managers

for analysis.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has dispatched large transmission

vehicles to fire sites to beam communications to satellites. The vehicles

carry equipment for radio frequencies as well as voice and data communications.

Just by popping an antenna on the roof of a vehicle, a firefighter can use

a phone or computer to call for supplies.

And in some cases, vendors are distributing experimental technology

for free to enable firefighters to test even more cutting-edge equipment.

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