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When Wildfires Rage, Firefighters Need Voice, Situational Awareness and Alerting Tech in the Wildland Urban Interface

Between January and September 2022, nearly 7 million acres burned across the United States. In recent years, the country has experienced unparalleled challenges regarding wildfires. The season is no longer contained within a portion of the year but has become a year-round battle. Wildfire suppression consistently exceeds $1 billion per year, and these incidents are becoming lengthier, more expensive, and more complicated as they increasingly affect urban populations. The wildland-urban interface (WUI) is the setting where human development is close to, or within, natural terrain and flammable vegetation. The population in these areas continues to grow, although inhabitants may not realize the inherent risk of their surrounding landscape.

Over New Year’s Eve of 2021, Colorado experienced its most destructive wildfire to date. Within three days, more than 6,000 acres burned, over 1,000 structures were destroyed, and two lives were lost. An experience like this demonstrates the vulnerability of communities within these wildland zones. Firefighters and other first responders have to cover miles of land in little time to save lives and property, and to contain the blaze. Communication failures can be disastrous. Given these challenges, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has been researching new and emerging communications technology that could improve life- and property-saving efforts.

Bridging the Gap

NIST hosts an annual Public Safety Broadband Stakeholder Meeting to bring together representatives from public safety, federal agencies, private industry, and academia. This conference encourages collaboration and invites stakeholders to learn about NIST’s research and development (R&D) efforts, new technology, and opportunities to get involved. This year's annual meeting was the first time NIST specifically discussed WUI.

The WUI conference track collected key findings from the public safety community regarding voice technology, situational awareness, and alerting. Public safety experts from three different organizations described their operational realities and needs in a WUI environment, including the technical challenges of their available communications technology. These sessions bridged the gap between first responders and innovators and helped each stakeholder group learn more about the needs and capacities of the other.

Voice and Data Findings

NIST’s annual conference shed light on a myriad of R&D gaps, along with operational challenges. Too often, wildland-urban firefighters are unable to reliably transmit voice signals with the radio technology that is available today. Diverse types of environments and terrains affect voice signal strength and coverage. Differing frequency bands used across communications devices support different talk groups or response tasks. Responding jurisdictions use various forms of voice technology and find damaged or nonexistent network infrastructure when they arrive on the scene.

When this happens, it is nearly impossible for agencies to communicate with one another, making a rapidly deployable voice network system crucial at the start of an incident. 

Participants also identified several technologies that would significantly improve firefighters’ voice communications effectiveness during WUI incidents. This voice technology “wish list” included the use of speech-to-text analytics that would automate real-time situational awareness and assign specific network channels for arriving fire personnel. Multi-jurisdictional WUI response requires seamless interoperability between agencies. Automatically routing network channels would allow first responders to focus on the task at hand rather than spending crucial time navigating network channels.

Situational Awareness and Data Findings

Every WUI incident has a different landscape, making their environments extremely challenging, dynamic, and dangerous for first responders, especially if they aren’t familiar with the area. According to the National Fire Data Center, firefighter injury rates are 14% higher in WUI areas as opposed to urban areas. Wildland firefighters would benefit greatly from technologies that enhance their situational awareness while interacting in remote, unfamiliar grounds. 

Participants noted that new technologies need to combat information overload affecting dispatch and incident commanders during the initial fire response. It’s also important to define common situational awareness data needs in WUI events, such as the fire source or populations in need of evacuation. Firefighters also require ubiquitous connectivity during WUI response to ensure real-time awareness of the location and activities of other responders. Participants also noted how important camera, temperature, and smoke recognition sensors are to determining fire source location.

Augmented Reality-supported displays and analytics-supported decision tools could improve response by providing firefighters with critical information related to fire source location and dynamic weather conditions. These tools could improve how public safety organizations allocate their limited resources across large stretches of remote terrain, optimizing first responder dispatch and saving lives and property.

Alerting and Data Findings

Accurate localization, geofencing, and alert transmissions are critical in rapidly evolving WUI events. Yet, firefighters reported problems with imprecise localization, time-lapse in alerts, and poor information-sharing between agencies.

Hardwiring nonnegotiable WUI alert features into iOS and Android devices would allow for improved evacuation routes and staggered evacuation times for enhanced efficiency. Fire service and law enforcement often collaborate during WUI evacuations, and they need standardized information-sharing protocols to ensure all parties communicate consistent instructions to affected populations during WUI incidents. Increasing the number of available characters for public alerts would allow for a more accurate description of the event at large. Finally, WUI incidents are typically not contained to a single city or county, therefore, alerting technologies need to be consistent to prevent over-alerting specific communities along with the risk of under-alerting others.

What’s Next

NIST convened this breakout track at the 2022 Stakeholder Meeting to inform future research and development planning, determine how NIST-supported technology research might apply to WUI applications, and raise stakeholder awareness of the unique challenges public safety faces during WUI incidents. NIST intends to build on these outputs during road mapping activities later this year and learn from other programs seeking to advance WUI capabilities, such as the FirstNet Authority, the National Fire Service, and the Western Fire Chiefs Association, to deliver innovative, requirements-based technologies that address the highest priority WUI response gaps and opportunities.

Those interested in engaging in future NIST-supported wildland-urban interface activities may subscribe to the NIST PSCR Newsletter for additional information.