Situational Analysis

Satellite imagery, drones, advanced analysis, and other emerging technologies are quickly changing the face of firefighting


The use of geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) tools such as remote sensing and data visualization is on the rise in the firefighting community, and the future of the profession will be greatly influenced by ongoing technological advances.

Kate Dargan, former California State Fire Marshal, co-founder of Intterra, and a USGIF board member, reflected on her early career as an air attack officer fighting wildfires in her home state.

“I was the ‘eye in the sky’ translating what I was looking at from several thousand feet to the firefighters on the ground,” she said, recalling later trying to capture video from the air using a handheld camera.

Today, commercial satellite imagery as well as LiDAR, hyperspectral, and infrared imagery collected from manned and unmanned planes could all be part of a firefighter’s toolkit. When paired with powerful data analysis platforms and mobile apps, GEOINT offers first responders greater situational awareness and a better understanding of the communities they serve.

A Rapid Evolution

“Many firefighters may only see the world through the windshield of the fire truck,” Dargan said, but noted available technologies and firefighter expectations are rapidly evolving.

For example, she said, fire chiefs may understand the basics of infrared technology but not yet be conversant in the various types of infrared and their corresponding capabilities. Regardless, Dargan said she is seeing the increased presence of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) at industry trade shows and is aware of more and more departments purchasing small drones.

For the last 100 years, firefighters used paper and pencil to create diagrams of buildings and map areas of wildfire risk. Modern fire departments employ geospatial technology to develop a standard of cover, more efficiently deploy resources, perform risk assessment, and pinpoint potential problem areas, according to Talbot Brooks, firefighter and director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Geospatial Information at Delta State University in Mississippi. Investment in geospatial tools supports risk reduction by being able to plan in advance of an emergency what equipment to use and where to position it. But the ability to improve response and mitigate risks relies on the ability to also properly integrate and manipulate geospatial data. 

If additional staffing, stations, or [equipment] are needed, a fire chief has the [geospatial] evidence needed to justify a budget request.
— Talbot Brooks, Delta State University

Dargan said the future of firefighting technology includes the networking of disparate imagery derived from different sensors and organizations. That is what her team strives for with its subscription-based Situation Analyst platform, which pulls all of that imagery together in one place and serves it up to each person in an organization modified for his or her needs.

David Holmerud, a fire service management consultant and former deputy fire chief in Solana Beach, Calif., emphasized the importance of asking the correct questions of the data at the right times: “Is there something more we can do to change the outcome of the responses? Of these structural fires, how many were contained to the original building? What difference did what we do make?”

Knowing how to draw the right conclusions from the data is the key to advancing the capabilities of the modern-day firefighter.

Startup Descartes Labs, founded by a group of scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory, is pairing satellite imagery with machine learning to help draw better conclusions for firefighting. In a company blog post titled “Fighting Wildfires Using a Cloud-based Supercomputer,” research scientist Daniela Moody writes: “The Descartes Labs Platform provides us with a view of the planet that no one has ever seen before—not only is it multi-sensor, multi-resolution, and multispectral—it’s also a multi-decadal historical lens.”

This information helps to ascertain damage from fires over time and can be used to make better decisions about how to fight fires in the future. The platform enables users to extract information not available to the naked eye, pull in a lot more data than can be done manually, and leverage machine learning processes that incorporate algorithms based on numerous data points.

“During the course of a fire, especially one with limited allocated resources, satellite imagery analysis could better direct ground crews to hotspot and containment areas,” Moody wrote.

Building Partnerships

Communication among the public safety community is also important when adopting new technologies. Holmerud recommends initiating and maintaining an open dialogue with city planners who may have already gathered and even visualized valuable data fire services could potentially tap into.

“For example, when a new subdivision is planned, many different data elements are available as a result of the approval process,” Holmerud said. “These data sets, ranging from street layouts to location of underground utilities, can be used to provide the basis of fire department pre-plans and updates to response maps and dispatching procedures.

It can be a time saver as well as provide accurate data.”

Dargan encourages fire chiefs to participate in wide-ranging discussions that include police departments, community health workers, public works, transportation officials, and other civic departments. These conversations will introduce fire service leaders to technologies not designed specifically for firefighting, but that could be adapted for their missions.

The Bolivar County Volunteer Fire Department concludes a live fire training at a donated structure in Benoit, Miss., in February 2009. (Photo credit: Delta State University)

Holmerud, who is also an instructor at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md., touts the value of collaborating with local colleges and universities on projects that could be of benefit to both parties. For example, the city of Wilson, N.C., has done significant work in mapping layers of data such as water flow, utility shut offs, and the number of people potentially living in a given structure. The city of Wilson makes these maps available to Holmerud’s students, who manipulate the layers behind the scenes by changing various conditions and factors. This activity enables students to go back to their communities with a better understanding of where information comes from and who they need to work with to ensure adequate resiliency and response planning.

Public-private partnerships could also pave the way toward better technological support for fire services. In the Phoenix, Ariz., area, 27 fire departments broke through jurisdictional boundaries to integrate their response to 911 calls. With a GPS unit now in every fire truck, the team in the best position to respond is dispatched to an incident, regardless of geographic boundaries. This new approach has resulted in shorter response times throughout the area.

Eric Prosser, information technology officer for the Santa Clara County Fire Department in California, points to the multi-agency coordination that was necessary for Santa Clara to host Super Bowl 50 in 2016. According to the NFL, 1.1 million people attended the game and related events.

Prosser’s iMAP Team won a USGIF Award in 2016 for providing the Santa Clara County Multi-Agency Coordination Center with a GEOINT-based decision and situational awareness platform. The iMAP team developed an enterprise GEOINT system used to manage all fire and medical service operations throughout Super Bowl 50. In collaboration with Dargan’s Intterra, the developers generated the ability to integrate 911 computer-aided dispatch information, map special events throughout the region, monitor resource availability, view GIS layers to include near real-time satellite imagery, and analyze data trends.

“The results of iMap enabled us to be better prepared for future special events and large-scale incidents, and to have situational awareness at both the department and operational area levels,” Prosser said. “This additional data provides us with useful information on a daily basis within the Silicon Valley.”

The Geospatial ROI

Holmerud said although many fire departments are slow to officially adopt GEOINT, he is beginning to see volunteer departments systematically use smartphone apps to gain a sense of who’s responding as well as their locations and estimated arrival times. He believes these kinds of tools will make departments hungry for more geospatial information.

“We’re starting to see the value of [geospatial] intelligence coupled with response software—starting to see what they can do and look at the possibilities,” Holmerud said.

The realization that geospatial technology can be a force multiplier when it comes to getting the most out of existing resources will also help drive adoption, according to Brooks.

This map by Descartes Labs shows the burn severity index for the 2016 Soberanes fire on California’s Monterey peninsula. (Photo credit: Descartes Labs)

“If I want budget to go after something, now I can show it,” Brooks said of his ability to use data to test and prove a theory. “It’s not just a supposition. [Geospatial tools are] a good way of separating fact from fiction.”

Developing a standard of cover using GEOINT provides a data-driven solution for understanding where departmental strengths and weaknesses are located geographically.

“If additional staffing, stations, or [equipment] are needed, a fire chief has the [geospatial] evidence needed to justify a budget request,” Brooks said. “Supposition and anecdote are removed from the process and political leadership can have more confidence in decisions that often cost (or save) millions of dollars.”

According to Dargan, there are three main areas in which fire departments can invest: equipment, people, and information.

“One of the key messages we’re trying to communicate is that information is a resource and a hard commodity that should be planned for and used just like equipment and [people],” she said. “The return on investment for data is or will pan out to be higher than it is for the other two types of resources.”

For example, the amount of data a fire department can acquire and put to use through remote sensing is not available through any other method except boots on the ground evaluating each building and area of risk.

“We’ll never have enough staff to send feet up every driveway in California to talk to every home or business owner,” Dargan said.

Those data-enabled decisions could lead to less costly emergency response with less loss of life and property, she added.

Imagine a firefighter being able to do a voice search while combating a wildland or structural fire, Dargan said. They could say, for example: “Show me houses with wooden roofs and give me their addresses.”

This type of timely access to geospatial data will enable firefighters to more effectively respond to emergencies and will significantly improve their ability to predict events and therefore protect more property and save more lives.

Featured image: Fire glows on a hillside in Napa, Calif., October 9, as multiple wind-driven fires whipped through the region. (Credit: Josh Edelson / AFP / Getty Images)

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