april 2013

Editor’s Note: With mapping tablets, web-enabled smartphones, satellite uplinks and real-time situational awareness tools, the future of fire intelligence is on the firelines now.

We asked Tom Zimmerman, recently retired head of U.S. Forest Service Wildland Fire Management RD&A, to help us understand how the many promises of information technology may support the work of firefighters and decision-making of fire managers and policy-makers. He reached out to several experts for this state-of-the-tech review, for 2013 and beyond.

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Wildland fire management complexity and risk continue to increase dramatically. As a result, fire sizes and duration are increasing each year and possible impacts, negative outcomes and potential losses are becoming more serious.

In order to keep pace with this situation, new developments are occurring in firefighting equipment, communication equipment, tactical responses and support capabilities. But information management is an area that can often be overlooked when focusing on operational activities. This area is undergoing such rapid shifts in importance and emerging technology that it cannot be discounted. In fact, information management is quickly affording important and useful opportunities that can benefit and improve wildland fire management in the future.

It has been reported that the growth rate of information is doubling every 18 months, nearly two-thirds of all information users have multiple computing platforms and the majority of any organization’s data is inefficiently managed. Plus, the rate of technology change can at best be described as frenetic. Electronic technology processing speed, viewing size portability and overall utility are improving almost daily. Situational variables such as these, in combination with the need by fire managers to obtain real-time information as fast as possible and make potentially impactful decisions very quickly, are driving a need to improve information management capability.

From a wildland fire management perspective, it must be understood that we now have more readily available quality information regarding fire environments and fire situations; faster and more comprehensive computing speed and capability; and better predictive models than ever before. To improve wildland fire management, these capabilities must be capitalized on and incorporated into management activities.

In response to this need, numerous activities are under way to take advantage of new opportunities and technology for wildland fire management. Multiple sources of information exist and multiple applications are being created to provide quick, efficient ways to obtain these data. Emerging applications are enabling the rapid sharing of information among a variety of systems, but a lack of data standards can affect how well these processes work. Future work will need to pay attention to data standards, data sharing and data management, as well as responding to concerns over exposing data for other than the intended purpose on easily accessible sites.

Some of the more notable information management developments, as outlined in the next sections, include:

  1. Exploring opportunities to find ways for managers and fireline personnel to use new technology such as tablets and web-enabled smart phones.
  2. Developing a web-based decision support system that represents a single system for all wildland fires using geospatial data and access to analytical tools that will help better characterize overall risk.
  3. Creating new fire management information displays to more effectively take advantage of geospatial data that enable users to view multiple information layers during wildfire incidents.
  4. Developing virtual situation awareness tools to display situation information for decision-makers and planners.

The future will involve continued information management, use of emerging technology, and development of applications that will facilitate all aspects of wildland fire management.

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Tom Zimmerman, Ph.D., is Retired Program Manager, U.S. Forest Service Wildland Fire Management RD&A, Boise, Idaho. Zimmerman worked for 33 years in all areas of wildland fire management.