Florida's High-Tech Approach to Firefighting

Florida's High-Tech Approach to Firefighting

By John Makulowich
Senior Writer

The Division of Forestry in Tallahassee, Fla., is taking information technology to a new level in its fight against fires. The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services unit has launched an innovative program to produce a computer-aided dispatching and fire management system.

The goal is to give state fire management specialists climatological information to help them control where and when burn permits are issued and determine the suitable equipment available to supplement firefighting resources in rural areas.

Ultimately, the program should help lessen physical danger to firefighters and the public, limit damage to property from uncontrolled wildfires and reduce the problems of uncontrolled smoke dispersal. It also should enable the state to better manage resources for firefighting.

Other coastal and heavily forested states such as California, Oregon and Washington could benefit from similar programs.

Started late last year and set to end March 31, 1999, the program will cost an estimated $607,000, with the federal government shouldering $282,000 of the amount.

Part of the funds will be used to develop a database for a digital map that shows where open burning is authorized and pinpoints reported wildfires. Program products will include a high-resolution statewide weather forecast model, a statewide digital map and a World Wide Web site with current weather and fire danger forecasts.

James Brenner, the fire management administrator who heads the project, said the keystone is reliable weather information. With more coastline than any other state, and thus more problems with sea breezes during wildfires, Florida also ranks at the top of states in burning land for ecological maintenance, so-called prescribed or planned fires vs. wildfires.

"You can't do any of the real work without having a good weather forecast. Given our circumstances, we needed good weather information on a higher resolution than that available from the National Weather Service. That model is on a grid of 40 kilometers," said Brenner. "We need at least 16 kilometers resolution. What you want to do is decrease the size of the grid and increase the resolution, ideally to 8 to 10 kilometers."

Using a freely available computer program called MM5 (Fifth-Generation PSU/NCAR Mesoscale Model; www.mmm.ucar.edu/mm5/ mm5-home.html), developed by Pennsylvania State University/National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), Brenner's team now has a more sophisticated weather model.

The team is also creating a database of soil, land and vegetation, known as fuels to foresters, that will allow them to map fuels down to 30-meter resolution using Landsat satellite imagery. Those two elements, the fuels data and the sophisticated weather model, are the first part of the program, which Brenner has just completed.

He and his colleagues are also working on a smoke plume dispersal model so fire safety managers can more effectively assign burn permits to control the movement of smoke.

Such smoke dispersion models show where smoke might become a health or public safety hazard and allow managers to suspend or delay burning permits until there are better conditions.

Unlike other agencies looking to outsource more tasks, Brenner feels it is important to have firefighting expertise on staff.

"It helps us build up an important skill set, and people have a stake in doing a quality job. We also have more control," he said. "It is a quality management issue. We now have a top-notch computer systems analyst and are about to hire a meteorologist who is also a numerical modeler."

A critical part of their work is the MM5 model, a research tool used to develop numerical weather prediction models. It can be used in real-time forecast applications or as a research tool for historical applications.

Jimy Dudhia, a project scientist with the NCAR, part of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., noted the program is used worldwide. More than 40 universities and 25 countries are on their mailing list for updated MM5 information.

"You can get higher resolution with the program, but that increases the file size. The smaller the grid point, the more powerful the equipment needed," said Dudhia. "You can run the model on a supercomputer. The problems are getting access and cost."

While the program can produce a daily forecast, there are users doing more interesting things, like simulating hurricanes and factoring in precipitation and the motion and direction of winds.

Brenner's point about having staff in-house is reinforced on MM5's Web pages, where a list of the expertise level of the user includes such skills as experience with numerical modeling of the atmosphere, an understanding of atmospheric science at the MS level and basic knowledge of Unix and Fortran 77.

For Steve Plevel, consultant on fire management planning in Tucson, Ariz., programs such as the Florida effort that allow agencies to respond more quickly and accurately are very important, especially with the trend of reduced resources, people and money.

"My impression is that many agencies are using or starting to use some type of computer-aided system," said Plevel. "Clearly, efficient and effective technology must be applied to all aspects of firefighting. The quicker you get to the incident, the more opportunity to make a difference. The better the equipment used to fight fire, the safer the firefighter."

However, Plevel said people, dispatchers, managers and on-scene responders must still make decisions and act based upon their skill and experience. Technology is not a replacement for knowledge and good judgment, he said.

"You need highly qualified people to use any kind of technology," he said. "Poorly trained people with the newest technology just won't cut it."

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