Extinguishing inefficiency

Automated system helps manage firefighting resources

If you ever find yourself in the path of a wildfire, you might not be comforted to learn how officials go about finding the resources to combat such a blaze. Two words: Phone tag.

According to Jon Skeels of the National Wildfire Coordination Group, current procedures rely heavily on dispatch officials closest to a fire making telephone calls to determine which crews, supplies, planes and special equipment are available. Dispatchers might place as many as 15 calls, and orders can take several days to fill, Skeels said.

And along the way, the request can be distorted. NWCG officials tracked one resources order that went through 22 offices—and was altered at each stop. Skeels compared the process to the party game that involves a whispered phrase passed from person to person. What you get in the end is seldom what you started with.

"It's probably the biggest version of the telephone game," he said. "That's kind of the way the current system is." To help keep the message straight, a new software system is being employed. The Resource Ordering and Status System (ROSS), which will be deployed to more than 400 dispatch offices operated by NWCG's 56 agency members, will automate the wildfire resource ordering and status reporting process. The goal is to give responders an instant view of what is available and where. NWCG, a federal and state interagency group led by the Forest Service, coordinates wildfire management efforts.

"By automating this, we are able to see [available resources] immediately, and as things change, the status is automatically updated," said Skeels, ROSS project team leader for NWCG. "Just knowing where resources are is a very important piece of information."

Such information is provided to officials at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, each day, but by the time it's all compiled, "it's old news," Skeels said. By having status information available at their fingertips, ROSS' 6,000 users will be able to make more informed resource decisions, he said.

For example, under the existing system, dispatchers might not realize that crews are available nearby and could end up requesting some from another part of the country, wasting time and money. With ROSS, a list of the closest available resources is presented to the dispatcher, and if they are selected, the system automatically adjusts that group's status as "committed" and unavailable for other dispatchers to use.

Based on efficiency improvements, NWCG officials estimate ROSS will save $15.7 million a year.

ROSS is a Web-based application written in Java that exchanges data through an interface using Extensible Markup Language. Designed by Lockheed Martin Corp.'s Information Support Services business unit, ROSS is a compilation of commercial off-the-shelf database, server, geographic information system and business logic products.

NWCG started developing business requirements for the system in 1997 and began designing it with Lockheed in April 1999, said Paul Condit, ROSS project manager for Lockheed Martin. Two of the three main components of the system—the administrative and status functions—are being deployed now. A component enabling dispatchers to order resources will be phased in later this year, and the installation and training should be complete by December 2002, Condit said.

Although it is not technologically distinctive, ROSS is impressive for its ability to communicate with so many agency systems, Skeels said. "This is truly one of the first inter.agency information systems development proj.ects in the nation," he said. The system uses Versata Inc.'s Versata Logic Server to interpret and enforce application business rules and logic to allocate firefighting resources, said Manish Chandra, the company's vice president for worldwide marketing.

"The server is able to manage different logistics as your business rules are changing, [which is important] in any kind of system where you have dynamic characteristics," such as wildfires, he said.

MORE INFO

Slower burn

Fire responders have had an easier time this year compared with the

2000 fire season, which was "long, difficult and stretched resources to

the breaking point," according to a report from the National Interagency

Fire Center. "Veteran firefighters reported burning conditions and fire

behavior that they had never before seen...and hope to never see again."

This year, as of July 16, there were 46,484 fires across the country,

compared with 53,519 for the same period last year. The 10-year average

for the same period is 48,510 fires. The number of acres burned is also

down significantly—1.3 million to date compared with 2.5 million in 2000

and the 10-year average of 1.6 million.

Source: National Interagency Fire Center

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