Photograph of three firefighters using a portable weather station near a fire.
Firefighters using a Remote Automatic Weather Station.  (Kari Greer/National 
Interagency Fire Center)

Technological Changes Enhance Safety, Operations in Wildland Firefighting

By Sheri Ascherfeld

Much has changed in the world of firefighting in recent decades, including the fuels on the landscape, climate conditions, fire policies, and the wildland-urban interface.  Technology has changed, too, providing fire personnel with new and improved tools to help them make better informed decisions and enhance safety on the fireline. 

Just as computers have proliferated in homes across the country since the 1980s, they have also increasingly found their way into fire camps and are now commonly used for everything from timekeeping and managing financial affairs to modeling weather and analyzing fire behavior.  For example, geographic positioning system (GPS) navigational devices aid firefighters in finding the closest water source, navigating rugged terrain, or alerting dispatch centers to the location of a crew, an engine, or an aircraft, providing vital information and an added layer of safety and efficiency.  Another example is the Resource Ordering and Status System (ROSS), which can track all tactical, logistical, service, and support resources dispatched nationwide in near real-time to quickly get firefighters mobilized with the support they need. 

The online Wildland Fire Decision Support System allows managers to track key decisions and the rationale that influenced them and helps them work with state, regional, and national partners to collaborate on complex decisions, share risks more broadly, and work through processes more quickly.  The system includes modeling capabilities in two areas:  predicting fire behavior and rapidly assessing values at risk.  The fire behavior element predicts the rate, direction, and severity of fire spread based on a broad spectrum of inputs, including weather, fuels conditions, terrain and aspect, and fire history.  The risk assessment element works in conjunction with the fire behavior analysis to consider lives, property, and critical infrastructure such as powerlines and roads and cultural, scenic, recreational, and other values that may be affected by a fire's spread.  Fire managers can use all of the data and models to make decisions on how best to deploy crews, aircraft, and equipment in the safest, most effective, and cost-efficient manner. 

Improved remote sensing capabilities led to the development of the Incident Remote Automatic Weather Station (IRAWS), which plays a critical role in managing large fires.  This small, portable unit comes with sensors that monitor wind speed and direction, temperature, relative humidity, fuel moisture, soil moisture, and smoke.  The information is sent to a satellite, making it readily available to help fire managers get a broad, real-time picture of how the weather is changing over an area.  Most IRAWS units are deployed by ATV, but are also delivered by helicopter or a helicopter long-line cargo delivery if a landing site is not available, and are then set up and activated on the ground.

Years of research and testing have resulted in new technology for fire shelters that offer improved protection from radiant and convective heat.  The new generation of shelters protects firefighters by reflecting radiant heat and trapping breathable air.

New computer-based, online training courses enable fire personnel to acquire training from their homes or home units.  There is a broad spectrum of other technological aids to fire training as well.  Imagine a smokejumper exiting an airplane, pulling the handle to open his or her parachute, and then steering the square canopy in the variable winds to descend and land in the designated landing zone a safe distance from the fire.  Now imagine that this jump doesn't take place near an actual fire nor from the customary altitude of 3,000 feet.  Instead, this is a practice jump that takes place inside the smokejumper base at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.  Thanks to a virtual reality simulator, smokejumpers can practice their skills without leaving the ground.  With the aid of a harness, visual goggles, and a computer, they practice in a variety of settings and conditions.  The smokejumpers still get plenty of live practice jumps, but the simulator can help keep their skills sharp.

A number of other technological innovations are currently being discussed or under development that may be integrated into the fire community in the future.  Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) may one day be common reconnaissance equipment for fires.  Testing is currently being done on units that would tap into minor electrical currents created by sap movement in trees to power remote weather equipment rather than using small solar panels.  “Smart” hard hats are being made with sensors to alert the wearer about certain dangers at construction sites, which may have some future application in the fire community. 

Given the pace of change in technology across the board, there may be no limits to how advances are applied in the world of firefighting and fire management.

Sheri Ascherfeld began her federal career as a firefighter with the Forest Service in 1988 and moved to the National Interagency Fire Center in 1993.  There she worked for the BLM in the National Interagency Coordination Center and is currently in external affairs.