For crews fighting wildfires, the ability to get accurate information quickly is crucial. A breakdown in communication was one factor in a fire that killed 19 firefighters in Arizona last year, and in the deaths of two Florida firefighters in Arizona in 2011.
Florida officials hope to address some of those communication problems with a new tracking system designed to keep tabs on crews in the field.
In the West, crews fight wildfires with shovels and chainsaws. But in Florida, with more than 16 million acres of forest and expanses of grasslands that extend through the Everglades, the main tool is the bulldozer, which pulls a plow.
"It's just like a plow they use on the farm fields," says Jeff Radakovic of the Florida Forest Service. "It digs a trench basically into the ground."
In 2011 — a bad year for fires here — two firefighters were using bulldozers to dig breaks around a small blaze when both got stuck on tree stumps.
Running onto a stump is a bad deal for a bulldozer operator, Radakovic says. "It basically ... gets [the equipment] off the ground. If that happens, it's difficult to get off of it — especially in a situation like they were in, where the fire was knocking on their door."
The firefighters abandoned their machines, but were overtaken by fire before they could get to safety.
A Struggle To Communicate
The accident helped spur state officials to roll out an "asset tracking system" on Florida's bulldozers, trucks and other vehicles used to fight fires. The system uses radio tracking to follow the equipment, and a computer program then overlays the information onto satellite imagery, says Jim Karels, director of the Florida Forest Service.
"The fire supervisor is then ... from his truck at the fire, able to monitor where his equipment are and what they're doing," he explains. "Because in Florida, the terrain's very flat. You're not going to be able to get up on a hill and see your firefighters. And this gives that one additional safety measure."
Two years after Florida's fatal fire, a much larger fire grabbed the nation's attention in Yarnell, Ariz., where 19 firefighters were killed. Karels, who traveled to Arizona to direct the investigation there, says the disaster reiterated the need to find a way to track crews and improve communications during wildfires.
"Even in our day and age, communications can be somewhat a struggle, whether it's remote conditions of the West, or whether it's remote conditions of the swamps of Florida," he says.
"When everything is happening ... a lot of times the firefighters try very hard to keep their communications very short because they know the radio traffic is heavy," he adds. "And sometimes by doing that they miss the opportunities to thoroughly communicate what they need to."
The tracking system, on the other hand, can transmit important information in real time, without the need for voice communication.
Hoping To Track People, Not Just Equipment
Chris Wasil, a forest service supervisor, is sitting in his SUV at a wildlife refuge in Palm Beach County — nearly 800 acres of pines, saw palmetto and scrub surrounded by subdivisions.
Wasil scans his laptop, gesturing at a map pinpointing where his firefighters and their equipment are located. The map shows the bulldozer's track, its coordinates and speed.
Wasil and his crew just started using the new asset tracker and haven't yet tested it on a big fire. But he expects it will be useful — especially when he studies aerial maps and coordinates tactics during a wildfire.
"Like you can see on here, as this bulldozer is moving, there's a big wetland area here," he explains, pointing to the map. "I can either let him know it's a good safety area ... or it might not be a good idea to go through it."
Right now, the forest service here is only using the tracker on its equipment. But director Jim Karels believes the system can be adapted to track people, too.
On large wildfires in the West, though, dozens of agencies and contract crews often pitch in, with 1,000 firefighters or more. The biggest challenge there may be one not of technology, but of coordination.