In recent years, wildfires have devastated communities throughout the western United States. The United States Forest Service reports that wildfires burned through an area the size of New Jersey each year in 2015, 2017 and 2020.
The recent deluge of rain and snow in the West doesn’t necessarily mean a mild fire season. In fact, more rain means more vegetation, which means more tinder for fires. California’s 2020 fire season, the worst in the state’s history, followed a winter of “atmospheric rivers” like the ones they’re experiencing now.
As wildfire season approaches again, fire departments around the country are gearing up for the fight. And the tech industry is stepping up to support them.
Of course, technology upgrades can be daunting, especially to fire departments that are focused on the upcoming fire season. Regardless of the budget and resources, there are steps security leaders can take today to protect firefighters and boost their capacity to save property and lives.
Firefighters face some of the most extreme challenges in emergency response
Firefighters must make split-second decisions in volatile and dangerous environments. At a given moment, a team may be trying to determine how to reach a fire in a remote area, looking for the nearest water source or gauging wind speed. And they’re making these decisions while being exposed to heat, smoke, flames and toxic gasses.
The more information they have at hand, the better. But making it easy to access that information is critical. Data on a desktop computer, or even a laptop, is useless to a firefighter as they approach a burning forest or building.
Moreover, firefighters aren’t the only personnel involved in a response. They must coordinate with police, paramedics and utilities. Breakdowns in communication can make responses slow and inefficient.
Some of these problems will always be inherent to firefighting. But advances in technologies from drones to data analytics are giving firefighters a crucial edge in the battle to protect lives, homes and property from fire.
Technology is leveling the playing field between firefighters and wildfires
The same technologies that make everyday life easier are now helping firefighters make faster, more informed decisions.
Firefighters are using smartphones and tablets to message and share photos in the field and receive alerts on changing conditions. The GIS tools that power digital maps provide firefighters with interactive maps they can use to track hotspots and fire spread and strategize responses.
Futuristic technologies like computer vision and sensing are improving fire departments’ situational awareness across vast regions.
Forest rangers who used to monitor thousands of acres from fire towers can use AI-powered sensors to detect the first traces of a fire. In Oregon, the Department of Homeland Security is testing out smoke detection sensors that can alert responders to “telltale particulates.” Fire departments are also using these technologies to keep the public informed.
Advances in hardware devices like drones and thermal cameras are giving firefighters new perspectives on fire activity.
From the air, fire departments are using drones to identify hotspots, monitor the progression of fires and capture real-time stats like wind direction and speed, temperature and humidity.
On the ground, thermal cameras can detect hotspots that are invisible to the naked eye and locate people in smoke-filled environments.
Of course, the data generated by this hardware is only useful if departments can put it into action. Cloud-native software with built-in applications and workflows is helping first response agencies integrate, analyze and share data with partners.
How does this technology get into the hands of your first responders?
What do all of these technologies have in common, from high-flying drones to sensors deep in the forest? They arm firefighters with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions. And knowledge is power in the face of danger and volatility.
Whether the department is kicking off a large-scale transformation project, or simply looking for lightweight tools to gear up for the impending fire season, there are steps security leaders can take today.
- Get firefighters smartphones and tablets.
- Switch to electronic reporting.
- Invest in data management.
- Move to the cloud.
Technology can’t make fires less dangerous, and firefighters will always need to rely on their skills and instincts. But thanks to innovation, firefighters are better equipped than ever to take on the immense burden they shoulder for society.