Air traffic control on the fire line

GCN Agency Award | Forest Service’s Web-based tracking system and Google’s 3-D imagery help make fighting wildfires more safe, efficient

People don’t normally think of the Agriculture Department’s Forest Service as an aviation agency. But in fact it owns approximately 50 aircraft and contracts out up to 2,200 more a year. They’re the single-engine planes and giant air tankers that spray flame retardant on wildfires, and the helicopters that carry first responders to dangerous hot spots on the ground.

“Situational awareness” is critical in coordinating the air and ground assault, but until recently, the communication system was only partly automated. Ground personnel marked fire locations in pencil on paper maps and called or faxed the information to headquarters.

So in 1999, the Forest Service partnered with the Bureau of Land Management to plan a computerized Automated Flight Following (AFF) system and started bringing it online two years later.

AFF is literally a potential lifesaver for the people on the aircraft, which often fly in areas below or outside of radar coverage. It will improve the safety of firefighters and residents and save money by directing resources more efficiently, according to Robert Roth, the USFS aviation management specialist in Missoula, Mont., who serves as AFF program manager.

The agencies began outfitting aircraft with Global Positioning System receivers that transmit position data every two minutes to a satellite that relays it in seconds back to Dell database servers at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. The center also has load-balanced Web servers to handle spikes in demand from 8,000 users, according to Roth.

“The heart of the technology is getting the position reports back to the server in Boise,” said Ken Kokjer, a telecommunications planner for BLM’s Alaska Fire Service, who served on the AFF steering committee. “There are six to seven vendors that we take feeds from,” said Kokjer, who drew on his background as an electrical engineer to find the best satellite radios.

Consolidation is the trick

Impressive as the space-age technology sounds, the biggest achievement of Roth and partner Neil Flagg, senior programmer at the Forest Service, could be consolidating high-resolution imagery on back-end systems from multiple sources, then making it accessible from a single screen.

“There are so many different agencies that provide data,” Flagg said. “They all want something close to what everybody else wants, but they’re all in slightly different formats.” He worked closely with vendors of aircraft flight-following devices to make sure they transmitted the right data for the consolidated view and had the proper security to talk to servers.

Users have two ways to view data. Flagg collaborated with firefighters from the British Columbia Forest Service to develop a Java-based browser program called WebTracker that supports two-dimensional maps and has been the main interface for several years. But in recent months, the Forest Service has begun rolling out a three-dimensional mapping program, Google Earth Pro (see sidebar).

“The real advantage of the Google Earth interface has been just the ability to visualize spatial data,” Roth said. “It’s really enhanced our ability to provide situational awareness.”

The interface layers important data—such as changes in ground elevation—over satellite images of an area, giving responders a clear view of the situation. The images also help responders identify types of vegetation and potential fuels for a forest fire, as well as roads or natural barriers that could slow a fire or serve as safety areas.

According to Brian McClendon, engineering director for Google Geo products, the Forest Service was a beta site for the 2.2 release of the Google software.

Adjusting of the fly

Roth compliments the company for being receptive to suggestions and incorporating some of them in the source code. He said the main design challenges were determining the right update frequency and amount of data, which Google solved by rewriting the client to run faster and compress data more efficiently.

One of AFF’s key features is its ability to show temporary flight restrictions issued by the Federal Aviation Administration. “When we have a lot of aircraft working in a fire environment, we file a flight restriction with the FAA so we won’t have commercial pilots flying over,” Flagg said, adding that the information also helps Forest Service pilots avoid other FAA-restricted areas.

He and Roth worked in the early development stages to map FAA’s data, even changing the programming language from Borland Software’s Delphi to the FAA’s preference, Sun Microsystems Inc. Java.

Linda Naill, an aircraft dispatcher at the Sierra Front Interagency Dispatch Center in Minden, Nev., said she mostly uses the Google version in her job managing up to 20 aircraft at a time from the facility, which oversees 11.5 million acres.

“The neat thing about Google Earth is they’re three-dimensional,” Naill said. “When I put a [temporary flight restriction] in place, I can really see if I’m impacting someone, and if someone violates it, we can easily figure that out.”

Before AFF, Naill put out radio calls every 15 minutes, juggling the responses. Now, “I can get everybody up in the air and check them all at one time,” she said. Updates come every two minutes, though Nail still does radio checks every half-hour. AFF also makes it easier to plan flights with a half-dozen other agencies to avoid air-traffic conflicts and coordinate more efficient responses to fires, which are often called in by multiple sources.

“When you’re all responding to the same fire, and you’ve got aircraft coming over the hill toward each other, it’s not a good thing,” Naill said.

The AFF is expanding to other agencies. The National Oceanic and Administration uses it for animal-survey aircraft and Antarctica- bound ships, and it is spreading to nonfirefighting sections of BLM, which manages mostly Western federal lands not overseen by other agencies.

The Forest Service is conducting a trial to track other assets, such as ground equipment—even individual firefighters—and expects to begin implementation next year. The agency also is evaluating “smart” phones and portable satellite transmitters to bring wireless Internet to areas lacking cellular coverage. Flagg said AFF also could assist in training, accident investigations, and payments to vendors and agencies that contract aircraft to the USFS.

Other agencies that rely heavily on high-value mobile assets and first responders also are logical customers. Roth has had informal discussions with the Homeland Security Department. “If you look at the requirements for any first responder, there’s probably 80 percent overlap,” he said.

The Google technology will let an agency augment maps with weather feeds and the locations of airports with firefighting equipment. The Forest Service also is working to add lightning-strike information from weather-monitoring systems from Vaisala Inc., Flagg said.

Kokjer said AFF proved its value in an August search and rescue mission, when rescuers were able to fly directly to a downed aircraft. Previously, they would have wasted time in a risky, wider-area search. “If we have a search and rescue, the search part is minimized,” he said. Tests are underway to more accurately map fire perimeters every 15 seconds, then immediately transmit the information to ground crews, Kokjer said.

Avoiding fire-related losses

The system also helps businesses avoid fire-related losses. Noah Doyle, a Google Geo product manager, was on vacation at a lodge in Wyoming when word of a fire arrived. Roth sent Doyle a map of the fire’s location. “I showed it to the people at the lodge and it helped them understand the fire better—just how close it was,” Doyle said. Without the technology, the lodge might have been evacuated unnecessarily. “It dispels the speculation, the potential for panic,” Doyle said.

Roth suspects the system’s greatest contribution will go unnoticed. “We’re going to save many lives, I’m fairly certain, and you’ll probably never know that that happened,” he said.

David Essex is a freelance technology writer based in Antrim, N.H.


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