The Colorado Center of Excellence’s Comments Regarding the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) Fire Operational Requirements and Capability Analysis: Report of Findings
On May 31, 2019, the Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a report detailing the findings of an Integrated Project Team tasked with investigating new and emerging technology that could be applied to wildland fire incident response. In particular, the Integrated Project Team investigated areas of innovation that could be applied to the issue of Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) fires and promote/provide for improved operational response to save lives in WUI fires. The report, titled Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) Fire Operational Requirements and Capability Analysis: Report of Findings (hereinafter referred to as “The Report”) is available here:
The Colorado Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting (CoE; (cofiretech.org) commends DHS S&T for the comprehensive work detailed in the report. Because several of the areas discussed in The Report touch on areas of active research at the CoE, as well as active operations at the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC), it seemed prudent to release a review of CoE projects related to findings in The Report.
About the Center of Excellence
The Center of Excellence was created by the Colorado Legislature in 2014 to study and advance the technology related to wildland fire operations in Colorado. While the CoE’s title includes “Aerial Firefighting,” in fact, the scope of CoE research is broader than just aerial firefighting efforts. As is recognized in the wildland firefighting community, aerial firefighting represents only one aspect, albeit a visible one, of wildland firefighting. Effective response to wildland fires requires an integrated effort that includes bringing multiple resources to the response. The CoE’s endeavors mirror that multi-faceted approach. In addition, while the CoE is focused on wildland fire, many of the CoE’s projects can and do support non–wildland fire response (e.g., structure, vehicle, hazmat) as well as other emergency operations, including law enforcement and emergency response.
CoE Analysis of The Report
To those skilled in the art of wildland firefighting and WUI fires, few of the items discussed in The Report come as a surprise. Instead, the detailed ranking and analysis of the technologies and solutions adds a layer of structure to a body of common knowledge within the community. Indeed, the seven key findings in Table 1 of The Report are all areas that have been recognized in the community as critical or important to effective management of wildland fires and, in particular, safeguarding the lives of the public and responders impacted by these events.
The Report does a good job of compiling and prioritizing challenges and opportunities. Furthermore, The Report touches on modern technologies that can and should be deployed on wildland fire and WUI events. Ancillary benefits in response to other natural and manmade disasters become quickly obvious.
The following observations are presented based on CoE experience/expertise and in hopes of encouraging and engaging further work.
- The seven key findings (page vi, Table 1) are of interest and generally illustrate problem areas, but the descriptions are broad and do not lend themselves to staged implementation.
- The eight mission elements (page 3) are more concise and easier to relate to technology solutions.
- In the estimation of the CoE, the challenges of implementing the technologies highlighted are significantly underestimated. Specifically, the affordability and usability ratings for several of the technologies discussed are understated.
- The CoE has been specifically involved in the development and evaluation of several of the technologies discussed for 3 or more years, giving the CoE unique insight into operationalization of these technologies.
- Adoption of technologies by responding agencies at a local level can be slow and often budget-limited.
- Communications infrastructure and resilience is greatly overstated in the Western U.S., particularly by commercial companies providing that service. Without a robust communication infrastructure that reaches out of urban areas, much of this technology is moot.
- The report discusses communications in light of survival and resilience, but misses the fact that vast swaths of the Western U.S. have no viable communications infrastructure.
The CoE’s Related Work
The Center of Excellence and Colorado DFPC have a number of ongoing projects that relate either to the mission elements or the specific technologies discussed in The Report. The following sections provide information on those projects. In some cases, the projects are fully deployed within the State of Colorado.
Mission Element: Detection—Colorado Multi-Mission Aircraft
Early detection of wildland fires is a hallmark of the DFPC Multi-Mission Aircraft (MMA) Program. Colorado recognized in the 2014 Colorado Firefighting Air Corps Report that early detection and suppression was a key factor in successful suppression or management of wildland and WUI fires. DFPC’s wildfire management goal is as follows:
"Keep all wildfires with values at risk smaller than 100 acres and suppress all fires in Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) areas at less than ten acres, 98% of the time."
Critical in this effort is early detection. Colorado’s MMA are based upon a civilian version of the U-28 aircraft. The MMA are Pilatus PC-12 aircraft equipped with MX-15 infrared and visual sensors. The sensor suite is operated by a wildland-firefighting-qualified Mission Sensor Operator and is used for detection and fire mapping. Since 2017, the State MMA have recorded 2,787 flight hours (all missions types) and detected 216 new fires.
- Information (annotated video and images, both infrared and visual) is presented in near real-time to Colorado firefighters, primarily using the Colorado Wildfire Information Management System (CO-WIMS).
- CO-WIMS is available to any Colorado fire department and aggregates information from national fire information services, including but not limited to:
- IRWIN (Integrated Reporting of Wildland-Fire), GeoMac (Geospatial Multi-Agency Coordination), National Incident Feature Service, MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer)/VIIRS (Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite), Hawkeye, RAWS (Remote Automatic Weather Stations)
- Colorado MMA
- Colorado Fire Prediction System
- CO-WIMS is an Intterra-based product and interoperates with the Enterprise Geospatial Portal (EGP), which is the U.S. Forest Service’s subscription to Intterra’s software. EGP exchanges data with CO-WIMS; specifically, EGP provides CO-WIMS with a map layer depicting lightning strikes across the United States and CO-WIMS provides EGP with the aircraft intelligence generated by the MMA. This data exchange between Colorado and the U.S. Forest Service occurs free of charge to either party.
Mission Element: Detection
Early detection to provide for early response and control is likely the most effective approach to mitigate loss of life and property. However, detection is not enough. Rapid scene assessment and response with appropriate resources is critical. That is often hampered by existing traffic, lack of timely information, lack of available resources, and defocused and distributed dispatch functions often designed to facilitate long-term rather than rapid response. Rapid detection and response is a local problem and results focused on national conformity may not address or consider local issues. The challenge is providing detection and response information to the people on the scene.
Mission Element: Detection—Research into Satellite Technologies
The CoE has worked with various military and space-based mapping companies to evaluate the viability of spaceborne detection. At this point, the accuracy and timeliness of data available to civilian organizations is not of sufficient accuracy to meaningfully impact early detection of WUI fires. This is consistent with The Report.
Mission Element: Detection—Short- and Medium-Endurance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
Current short-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), both rotary-wing and fixed-wing, are useful tools for wildland firefighting both in the rural and WUI environments. Utilization of UAVs is currently limited by a lack of National Wildfire Coordinating Group–qualified unmanned aerial system pilots, so adoption is slower than may be anticipated. This somewhat limits the utility of UAVs in fast-moving WUI environments. Local qualification programs, such as the one operated by the CoE for the Colorado Department of Public Safety, may address the pilot shortage and provide local responding agencies with the ability to operate in the initial attack and emerging WUI environment. Due to the short endurance of these aircraft, as well as limited altitude and range, detection is not a strong point.
Mission Element: Detection—Long-Endurance High-Altitude UAVs
The application of long-endurance (i.e., days to weeks) fixed-wing UAVs operating within the Class A airspace (typically above 40,000 feet) shows promise. While Colorado's MMA have proven success and utility, they are primarily an “on-call” asset with practical endurance limited to 4–6 hours. A high-altitude UAV that can loiter over an area for weeks and provide infrared detection capability is promising. The technology for such an aircraft is on the cusp of deployment. The cost of this technology is not yet well defined, but is probably out of reach of most local agencies, similar to firefighting aircraft. However, if shared on a state or regional basis, it is likely financially viable.The Colorado MMA program fits this model. While no local fire department or locality could afford the MMA, when spread across the State, the cost/return basis becomes very viable. In Colorado, the MMA aircraft are available at no cost to State and local agencies. This technology could assist in other aspects of the response (e.g., communications, evacuation planning/monitoring).
Mission Element: Detection—Fixed-Base Camera Detection
The CoE has performed limited investigation of fixed-base camera detection systems. These systems promise automated detection of smoke plumes, but demonstrate high false rates so must be backed by human observers. Basically, they are the modern equivalent of a fire lookout tower. The cost of deployment for fixed camera systems is high, both in terms of the infrastructure of detectors and the information management (distribution, power, monitoring). The deployed systems may not be hardened or resilient with regards to wildland fire and investing in hardened systems over large areas could be cost prohibitive. Particularly in the WUI environment, which is full of people, investing in effective citizen detection of fires and crowdsourcing is an alternative that should be investigated. Currently, citizen reporting can be unreliable, but through use of metadata and more intelligent analysis, crowdsourcing could become effective (see next section).
Mission Element: Detection—Crowdsourcing
Detection of fires/smoke/emergencies through analysis of geolocated cell phone pictures is demonstrated and quite simple. Common smartphones can provide geolocation and primary direction information for photographs. Two or more photographs with this information can be used to geolocate a fire—this has been demonstrated and is quite an easy process. However, the back-end infrastructure to capture that data, utilize it, and distribute it does not exist. The CoE recommends investment in this area. It is in this area where a system such as WIFIRE, Esri, Interra, or the Android Team Awareness Kit could play a key role. The ability of 911 dispatch centers to accept text and multimedia messages as part of the rollout of Next Generation 911 could also bring this concept to fruition.
Mission Element: Public Information and Warning
Clearly and certainly, the need to provide the public with accurate and timely information is critical to self-determined response. Far too often, information provided by public safety agencies lags dramatically behind what is being reported through social media. The issue is that the social media information is often wrong, misleading, or contains outdated data.
The CoE has not performed significant work in this area beyond the recognition that dissemination of accurate and timely information is lacking. Areas of concentration include:
- Increased public information officer involvement early and often. Typically, responding resources do not have personnel dedicated to public communication.
- It is a natural tendency for responding fire personnel to focus on the fire rather than the evacuation efforts. However, this response may be natural, but it is often incorrect. Instead recognizing that protecting evacuation routes, establishing safe zones, and getting people to safety may be more important than “putting the wet stuff on the red stuff” is part of managing effective response. Particularly in the face of rapid fire growth and spread, limited fire resources are wasting time trying to stop the fire.
- It is our belief that, more often than not, informed people will make wiser decisions rather than panicked ones. Even in dire circumstances, such as evacuating through fire, informed people with a plan will behave more wisely than those questing for answers.
One key observation:
- Public information and preparation starts weeks before the event through programs such as Fire Adapted Communities and local department outreach. It is as much a mindset as a process.
Mission Element: Evacuation, Tracking, and Preparedness
This mission element may be better split. In particular, evaluation and tracking are real-time activities that occur during the fire. Preparedness is something that happens weeks, months, or years in advance and informs the activities during the event. In addition, tracking has two elements: tracking of emergency personnel and tracking of evacuees.
Mission Element: Tracking of Responders—Android Team Awareness Kit (TeamConnect)
The CoE is significantly involved in research related to the tracking of emergency personnel. In particular, use of the Android Team Awareness Kit (ATAK) is the key factor in the CoE’s research and work regarding both tracking and informing emergency responders.
It is the belief of the CoE that ATAK is the platform of choice for a common operating picture in wildland fire response. There are challenges to ATAK, but a clear path forward exists. To this end, the CoE has applied for a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Fire Prevention and Safety Research and Development Grant to address known limitations in ATAK with regard to the fire service. The CoE is awaiting award information on the 2018 FEMA grants.
A unique and critical aspect of ATAK is that it operates both in peer-to-peer mode and server mode and seamlessly transitions between the two operating modes.
- UAV and ground-based ad-hoc networks can rapidly support ATAK operations in peer-to-peer mode with none of the difficulty required to deploy mobile cellular systems (like Cellular on Wheels (COWs) and Cellular on Light Trucks (COLTs).
- The CoE and DFPC are utilizing TeamConnect and a PAR Governmental web-deployed ATAK server for some operations.
- The CoE has test-deployed ATAK Civ Server for limited engagements.
Regardless of the outcome of the FEMA grant request, the CoE is moving forward in development and deployment of ATAK-based capability in Colorado. For more information, visit the CoE’s website at cofiretech.org
- Colorado’s DFPC Wildland Fire Management Section, with the support of the CoE, has operationally deployed ATAK on a limited basis.
- The CoE has deployed ATAK on cellular networks and using low-bandwidth data radios (i.e., gotenna Pro X) in peer-to-peer mode on numerous search-and-rescue events with good success. Our experience is that team leaders quickly learn to depend on information provided by ATAK as to team location, tracking, and status.
Mission Element: Tracking of Responders—Data Communications
It is a common misconception, enforced by statements of wide coverage by commercial cellular providers and FirstNet, that cellular communications can provide viable critical public safety communications throughout the U.S. Simply stated, in rural, WUI, and smaller urban areas, cellular coverage—whether consumer-based or Band 14/FirstNet based—is insufficient to provide even minimal communications. This is particularly true in the Western U.S.
- As noted in The Report, much of the cellular network is not hardened or resilient.
- Coverage outside urban corridors, even along major arteries, is poor, discontinuous, and limited. Coverage statements are based primarily upon “population covered” rather than on area covered, whereas wildland fire and WUI events are, by nature, more rural.
- Systems are quickly overwhelmed and taxed. FirstNet and public safety priority and preemption systems have failed to mitigate this problem and may worsen the Public Information and Warning mission by denying civilian usage.
- Mobile cellular deployment, while useful, is not timely enough for rapid WUI fires during evacuation stages.
- Low-bandwidth communications are more effective than high-bandwidth. While “pictures and videos” is often what people think of, low-bandwidth SMS-type information providing simple location, line, point, and polygon information can be used by systems such as ATAK to provide meaningful and easy-to-interpret real-time data to emergency responders.
- Alternative data radios—such as those provided by goTenna, Beartooth, and others—provide strong benefit in cellular-denied areas, particularly if the cost is held low.
- Satellite-based tracking and communication devices, such as those provided by DeLorme and SPOT, while supplying value for their intended customers, require significant adaptation beyond their current capabilities to meet the needs of emergency services for real-time tracking (reference the CoE report on satellite trackers).
Mission Element: Forecasting
Forecasting is an area Colorado has invested in. In 2015, the Colorado Legislature directed the CoE to work with the University of Colorado and the National Center for Atmospheric Research to develop and deploy the Colorado Fire Prediction System (CO-FPS). CO-FPS is based upon the CAWFE (Coupled Atmospheric Wildland Fire Environment) model and is currently operational in Colorado on a limited basis. The Colorado contract with the National Center for Atmospheric Research will continue through the spring of 2020, at which time the system will be maintained and operated by Colorado DFPC.
- CO-FPS is available to all Colorado fire agencies and allows for rapid prediction of wildland fire behavior based upon minimal input.
- CO-FPS simulations and results are presented in CO-WIMS), which is an Intterra-based system.
- CO-FPS has not been validated in a “prediction” mode to model future events. The primary issue is that CO-FPS is based upon CAWFE, which utilizes detailed high-resolution weather modeling. Running CO-FPS predictions as a preparedness tool for some hypothetical event does not fit the model. While it could be possible to run simulations during current weather, and then use those as predictions for the future, this has not been validated.
Review of Available Technologies (Solution Considerations) Mentioned in The Report and Related CoE Work
WIFIRE, Interra (CO-WIMS), ATAK:
These systems are essentially methods or systems to integrate and present data.
- Colorado’s CO-WIMS system is an Intterra-based system and provides data at different levels. WIFIRE and CO-WIMS are best suited to command-level deployment in agency headquarters, Geographic Area Coordination Centers, and dispatch centers. These systems require robust and high-data connections not often available to emergency responders.
- The CoE believes The Report understates the cost of WIFIRE and Interra-based approaches, particularly in the case of infrastructure and communications development.
- ATAK, while it provides strong situational information, is a much more tactical application that can be deployed both at command and responder level. The value of ATAK lies in its ability to provide real-time, impactful, and relevant information at the responder level.
- ATAK is more optimized for local operations and tactics than wide-area modeling.
- The CoE is strongly committed to ATAK and is working to operationalize it at the local and State levels. The CoE has a comprehensive plan of work that needs to be performed to bring ATAK to the level at which it can be optimized for wildland fire use.
The CoE finds the DHS S&T report titled Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) Fire Operational Requirements and Capability Analysis: Report of Findings to be a valuable compilation and presentation of the problems being faced in the WUI and how to respond effectively, efficiently, and safely. As stated earlier, the identified problems in The Report should come as no surprise to those skilled in the art of wildland firefighting, but the additional layers of analysis and ranking in The Report add value to the discussion and act to prioritize areas. In addition, the gap identification and list of candidate technologies is informative. In the opinion of the CoE, the list of potential technology solutions is both longer and shorter than The Report indicates. The resulting compilation represents a good starting point for focused work in this area, which can inform research agencies like the CoE and allow us to cooperatively pursue operational deployment.