Firewatch

Sep 27, 2012 6:32 PM by Dennis Bragg - KPAX News

Wildfire fighters using iPads to battle blazes

HAMILTON - Most of us think of iPads as a way to watch movies, entertain family or play games. But Greg Poncin's Type 1 firefighting team on the Hamilton Sawtooth Fire is using the devices in a U.S. Forest Service pilot project.

This summer on three major fires, including the Sawtooth and Pine Creek Fires in Montana, Poncin's crew used the 3G-wireless-equipped iPads on the fire lines, and in camp, shooting videos and photos, creating detailed maps and designing response plans, enabled by an app written by a team member.

"Fires are very dynamic, lots of moving parts," observed Poncin. "And so with these iPads out there we can capture that information and share it amongst the team more quickly than we've ever been able to before."

Pictures are locked to map locations set by GPS, giving managers a firsthand look at what crews are facing. Those videos allow fire teams to describe the type of timber and terrain at different points on the fire, explain what fuels could catch fire and how the blaze is spreading on the ground.

Poncin says that kind of "eyes on" view has never been available before, especially in near real time. The maps and info can also be shared with the public to explain fire behavior, terrain and evacuation plans.

The iPads could also help ordering supplies, and paying firefighters.

"Finance can us that to track daily costs and time for people that are spiked up on the hill so we don't have to have, actually send someone up to gather those pay documents. They can all be done electronically. So as you start thinking about it there's a lot of stuff we can do with it."

After the fire, the maps and photos can also help assess structure damage and develop rehabilitation plans.
"And it's accurate on the map, real time," explains Poncin. "And you're just ready to go. And we can print a map that day or leave it with the district behind when we leave."

And the tools could be useful in other kinds of public emergencies, such as floods and earthquakes, because the mapping technology is so useful in sharing information between agencies.

"Floods or hurricanes or wherever you need to have an incident management team collect data from this dynamic situation and transfer that. Because that's really at the core of what it means to manage an incident. This communication flow and how you deal with that information."

The system is still in a trial phase. But Poncin says the team has been learning throughout the summer, and he's expecting more discussions this winter on how the software and iPads could be used to a greater extent next year."

"And the real benefit has been, it's been kind of this ground-up. It's been so user driven, this technology. And the guy that's helping us apply the technology is so well connected with what needs to happen that it's been extremely efficient for us to make huge strides, even over the course of three different assignments. From where we've started this summer to where we are now has been huge."

Photo: Greg Poncin checks his iPad in Sawtooth Fire camp last week.

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