Ready for a heated battle
- By Judi Hasson
- Mar 11, 2001
Keith Jackson doesn't have much time to walk in the woods these days. Instead, as the new chief information officer at the U.S. Forest Service, he is making sure that technology is ready to fight fires at a moment's notice. "The fire season is now starting in January," Jackson said. "Our job is to ensure the infrastructure is there to deliver."
In fact, new fires erupted almost daily last month in southern Florida, and another dry season could threaten millions of acres of federal land throughout the West. The CIO's job at the Forest Service is to ensure the spread of information to protect the life and safety of the public, especially during a crisis, Jackson said.
With Web sites collating information daily around the country and satellite imagery helping to pinpoint fires, it might sound as if fighting fires has gotten easier.
But if anything, it has become harder. Last year, more than 92,000 forest fires were recorded in the United States, charring 7.4 million acres of land and causing billions of dollars in damage, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, Boise, Idaho.
Yet, "our mission doesn't change," Jackson said. "We step up support, but we are always 24/7. We may just heighten our sensitivity."
A career government employee, Jackson is responsible for developing long-range information resource management policies for the Forest Service.
He's no stranger to information technology. Before joining the agency, he served as associate CIO at the Agriculture Department and managed its telecommunications service and operations. There, he was responsible for establishing Agriculture's strategic programs.
"He's very personable and easy to get along with. He knows how to navigate his way around the bureaucracy" and get what he wants from it, said James Dolezal, chief of the telecommunications systems division at the Interior Department, who worked with Jackson at the USDA.
His lengthy experience in government management and his knowledge of telecommunications are important in his new job. As manager of an agency that cuts across government, Jackson must deal with other federal agencies—such as Interior—and state and local agencies in mustering the technology to fight fires.
Jackson's telecommunications skills are important in his new job because the Forest Service uses an analog radio system to communicate during fires, even though digital radios are the state of the art. Most local fire departments still use the old-fashioned system, and "it is critical for us when we're out on the fire line to talk to the local fire department," Jackson said. Nonetheless, Jackson said the agency is testing digital radios that would enable firefighters to communicate with both digital and analog radios. "There are some digital radios that make that claim, but if your life were dependent on the stuff, you'd want to make sure the claim is valid," Jackson said.
Along with his USDA stint, Jackson also was director of regional services management at the General Services Administration's Federal Technology Service, where he oversaw GSA's $250 million regional telecommunications service.
Jackson knows a wilderness fire impacts both the forest and populated areas. The fire affects the nearby environment, and local air and water quality.
As CIO for the Forest Service, he's in the position that ensures that computer systems are always up and operating, and that no matter where there is a fire, computer services exist to back up those fighting it.