The Future of Firefighting

Q&A with Kate Dargan, co-founder and chief strategy officer, Intterra Group; former California State Fire Marshal


Kate Dargan is co-founder and chief strategy officer for Intterra Group, helping to bring innovative geospatial and remote sensing solutions to first responders. Prior to founding Intterra, Dargan was the first woman to become State Fire Marshal for California. She has 30 years of firefighting experience. Dargan is also a member of USGIF’s Board of Directors.

What were some of your early experiences with geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) and firefighting?

My early days were right out of high school in 1977. I was among the first women hired by CAL FIRE—then called the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF). I started as a seasonal firefighter responding to large wildfires, and 1977 was a record-setting year.

Kate Dargan Photo Slideshow

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In 1980, I became full-time and started progressing through the ranks—from firefighter to fire engineer to fire captain. It was as captain that I started engaging with remote sensing. One of my assignments was air attack officer, which means essentially forward air traffic control over wildfires. I flew on an OV-10 Bronco for seven years as an eye-in-the-sky translating a map of what I was looking at from several thousand feet aloft to the firefighters on the ground. They had no other way to get that information.

That really gave me an appreciation for how difficult it was to translate visual information into a radio and paint a picture in someone’s head of what you’re looking at. Secondly, some of the technologies that came online in the late ’90s and early 2000s with infrared and mapping were making our world much easier. We experimented with holding a video camera in our hands while we flew so we could have video imagery. I gained a real sense of why we needed to be pursuing these technologies because so many things were advantaged with that perspective.

How did you gain an interest in community resilience?

When I went on to become a fire marshal in Napa County—wine country—I became very engaged with the prevention and mitigation parts of the equation and how to educate and prepare communities to survive wildfires.

In 2003, I was assigned to the Cedar Fire, which was one of California’s historic loss fires. It burned a fair chunk of San Diego County and killed many people including some firefighters. It was a traumatic experience for everyone involved, and it generated in me a strong commitment to firefighter and community safety in firefighting and mitigation. I started looking for ways to use remote sensing for that problem as well.

What led you to become a co-founder of Intterra?

It was also around 2003 that I met my Intterra co-founders, David Blankinship and Brian Collins, through a mutual colleague. They were doing some amazing, innovative work with hyperspectral imaging analysis of watershed areas surrounding Colorado Springs. That translated into wildland fire fuels and rooftop analysis—flammable roofs. It was simply the best idea I’d seen in a long time relative to helping firefighters on the ground with detailed information. I became both a fan and an advocate. These bright people had taken a technology used for other purposes and reapplied it to a new use. It was one of those light bulb experiments where you see how the future might look 20 to 30 years down the road. We kept up a professional relationship for several years.

When Gov. Schwarzenegger appointed me to State Fire Marshal in 2006 I took the opportunity to expand and advance some of the remote sensing work we could do. We looked at things like LiDAR for forestry assessment, hyperspectral imagery (HSI) for community wildfire mitigation, and real-time infrared for firefighter safety. But there was no way to unite the various remote sensing products into a common platform for firefighters or planners. It was very technical and cumbersome and required a lot of analysis.

When I retired from the State Fire Marshal position in 2010, I went back to those colleagues and we talked about how we were still bumping our heads up against this problem. We said it’s been seven years and no one else is fixing it, so let’s start a company and build the right kind of software that can do what we’ve been struggling with. Since founding Intterra we’ve been working to build the capability to bring large amounts of data—including a lot of remotely sensed data from satellite and drone imagery, ISR products, and interpretive LiDAR and HSI products—into a situational awareness platform designed for fire departments.

It’s an eye-opener when folks see they can have all sorts of data streams plugged into a single device at their fingertips. That’s a game changer. Our clients range from the U.S. Forest Service to small, rural fire departments. That’s one of the things unique to the public safety world. When you’re focused on the military or federal world as a vendor you have a pretty homogenous client. In public safety, the tools have to be flexible enough to handle that disparity between large and small organizations.

How does GEOINT contribute to real-time firefighting and mitigation?

All phases of the emergency management cycle are advantaged with remote sensing. An example currently in use in the planning and mitigation phases is rooftop analysis. In the wildfire community, this allows you to assess a community’s vulnerability without having boots on the ground. You can find wood as opposed to concrete or shingle/tile roofs and assess fuel in terms of structure. ‘Is it eucalyptus, pine, juniper? Are palm trees adjacent? How far are they from the structure?’

You can predict fire behavior close enough to the structure to impact it or to create embers that are going to flow downstream. You can mix vegetative information with building information from rooftops, then marry it with GIS information of roadways, water sources, and historic fire information for patterns of behavior. When you put all of this together you have a tactically oriented map firefighters can use to decide which houses are safer to protect, which are riskier to protect, and where to stage equipment at the incident.

That model is directly out of the military paradigm of ‘shaking the battlefield,’ making sure conditions for success have been enhanced so the tactical fight is to your advantage. It’s not just about getting data into the hands of firefighters, but also about the ability to deliver large volumes of information served up to each person in an organization the way they need to use it. That’s where industry can really help the public safety world.

How does GEOINT yield a return on investment for fire departments?

The amount of detail a fire department can acquire and put to use through remote sensing is unavailable anywhere else accept boots on the ground. As we’ve shifted to an electronic medium we have the ability to take an aerial base map and electronically create that same building footprint or wildland area. It’s not just a static, electronic picture. We can now add data and refresh during an emergency. That is very different for the fire service. They’re not used to having that much information available to them during the decision-making phase of response. Remote sensing is arriving so quickly we’re struggling to figure out ways to use that data inside the mission. The information has to fit into the pattern and flow of how we fight fires, not disrupt it.

What do you anticipate for the future of firefighting technology?

Remote sensing products are arriving with exponential growth. So much of it is headed our way that the general public isn’t even aware of yet. Those capabilities, whether it be small drones or a large, near-real-time satellite network, are going to effect almost every moment of our decision-making process. A firefighter of tomorrow will be used to seeing their response area in an aerial viewpoint rather than through the windshield or via Google Earth. They will have constant access to what their district looks like at that moment, where they are within that area, where their adjacent units are, and the homes, building material, and emergency status in that area. They will be visually connected to their communities and will be much safer, especially in the wildland world. We’ve just begun to scratch the surface of how to incorporate these technologies into everyday decision-making.

What advice do you have for young public safety professionals?

I have two sons in the public safety field and both in the fire service. My advice to them has been to pay attention to GEOINT technology and to become conversant. To become familiar with the language of it, what the capabilities are, and read up on remote sensing applications. Become the person in your department who knows how to manage the information side. It’s less about being able to control the drone itself and more about being able to interpret the imagery it’s generating.

Kate Dargan, former California State Fire Marshal and co-founder of Intterra

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