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New Technology of the Fire Line

Lindsay Mohlere

When fire season exploded this year, several new technological advances were deployed to aid fire managers and fire fighters battle blazes across the West. Drones, real time mapping software, situational awareness software and ping-pong ball-like plastic spheres known as Dragon Eggs are just a few of the applications now available to firefighters.

Firefighter Team Awareness Kit

In a move to improve and complement existing walkie talkie and voice radio communication technology and give crews on the ground a more accurate picture of their surroundings, an android based app called the Team Awareness Kit (TAK) was put to use by the Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting (CoE) in a USFS approved pilot project on the Grizzly Creek Fire in Colorado recently. Basically, the smart phone just got smarter.

The Center of Excellence was originally created through the Colorado legislature to determine the efficacy of aerial firefighting and has evolved to become the go-to research and development team for projects across the public safety service spectrum.

TAK is a geospatial mapping engine, first developed by the US Military for the android smart phone system, that facilitates situational awareness, navigation and data sharing. TAK was first developed as Google maps for soldiers so they would be able to map a battlefield and call in airstrikes. The technology is under continuous development as a Program of Record by the U.S. Special Operations Command and partner government laboratories. It is a “government off-the-shelf” model and is licensed to first responders to use for free.

According to Brad Schmidt, wildland fire projects manager with CoE, the Grizzly Creek fire deployment of the Tactical Awareness Kit was the first time the technology was applied to an Interagency Type 1 fire. Prior use was limited to smaller, in state incidents.

One of the most important aspects of TAK is the technology’s ability to track individual firefighters, along with the distribution of equipment and spread of the fire.

Schmidt explained that the TAK app on an android cell phone, talks to a server that’s in the cloud. “It basically connects everybody when you have cell service. We also have mesh networking radios, called goTenna Pros, that are used if you don’t have cell service. They connect firefighters to other nearby firefighters that are carrying the radio system. They act as a repeater,” he said.

The mesh radio system, about the size of a candy bar, will repeat messages and display messages on other firefighter’s phones as a GPS report. It puts a dot on the map where the firefighter is located.

“A survey of firefighters that used the technology indicated it improved their situational awareness. The ability to see the location of other firefighters on a map was the most useful feature of the technology. That’s something we really haven’t had in wild land fire,” Schmidt said.

Currently, CoE is talking to California about ways to keep the pilot project going during the fall when California hits its peak burning period. After that, they’ll present their findings to the Forest Service.

The CoE’s goal is to facilitate the utilization of a system that will enable first responders to reliably transmit location information, collaboratively map an incident, and access other tools. “Being able to see exactly where someone is, is a big step forward to improving safety and the efficiency and effectiveness of wildland firefighting even if traditional Internet connections are degraded or absent,” Schmidt said.

Dragon EggsDragon Eggs

Dragon Eggs are advanced engineered one-inch plastic spheres made of high impact polystyrene dropped from aircraft to start prescribed or backburn fires. Each egg contains a high-grade potassium permanganate powder, and when injected with glycol, cause a chemical reaction and a 20-40 second delayed ignition, depending upon ambient temperature. After the delay, the sphere ignites, and the plastic shell is consumed as fuel providing an effective flame to initiate a fire.

The ignition looks like a flare and burns for about two minutes, allowing fire propagation to effectively take place during burn operations.

The Dragon Eggs are launched via the “Sling Dragon,” a fully automated dispenser which is slung from the helicopter cargo hook by a set of steel suspension cables. The dispenser automatically injects the eggs with glycol and releases them through a rotation mechanism when triggered by the pilot.

The entire ignition operation occurs outside and is totally separate from the helicopter flight deck. With the 20-40 second delay, the eggs usually don’t ignite until they impact the ground. The small size creates less drag during free-fall resulting in a 20 percent higher drop velocity and increases accuracy in all types of wind conditions and improves forest canopy penetration.

The Sling Dragon has a 5,000-sphere capacity and is equipped with a GPS tracker that records the drop coordinates on a MicroSD card. This allows users to view a map of the burn area on Google Earth.

Dragon EggsDragon Eggs, which are are slung from helicopters.

Dragon Eggs have been used on several fires this year, including the Grizzly Creek in Colorado and Beachie Creek, Lionshead, Slater, Riverside and Archie Creek in Oregon. In California, Dragon Eggs were deployed on the Bobcat, Creek, Castle, August Complex, Bluejay, El Dorado, LNU Complex and SQF Complex fires. The devices were also deployed in Washington state; however, the exact incidents were not available as of press time.

“This year has seen a drastic increase in the use of Dragon Eggs throughout Region 5 and 6 (WA, OR, CA), besides the fact that it’s a historically record-breaking fire season,” said Dev Saini, SEI industries Marketing Coordinator. “Several years ago, CAL FIRE aviation invested in 12 new Red Dragon machines so that their entire fleet of aircraft now only uses Dragon for aerial ignition of fires. The second reason is the approval and ever-increasing use of drone systems to drop eggs.”

Saini explained that many of the “qualified” crews using the eggs are hotshot crew which typically move around the NW for the entire fire season. He estimated there were possibly 8 – 12 systems actively working on back-burning ops at one point or another.

Dragon Eggs are manufactured by SEI Industries, a Canadian industrial fabric products manufacturer best known for inventing the Bambi Bucket.

Covid-19 Fireline Update

It would appear that the new normal protocols and restrictions on the business of fighting wildfire initially planned for fire season have paid off. Thousands of firefighters, crew bosses, contactors and other support personnel are deployed to major wildfires throughout the West. However, while there have been a few infections, the threat of the virus is amplified by the long-term ramifications of constant inhalation of smoke. So far, the Covid19 protocols seem to be working.

That’s a wrap.

Stay safe out there.

(Source: US Dept. Defence, NPR, goTenna.com, TAK, CoE)

TimberWest November/December 2013
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