When firefighters battle a blaze in a rugged, mountainous region, one of their biggest challenges is simply staying in touch. Their handheld radios often don’t stay connected to each other, and many fire crews lack simple, off-the-shelf solutions, such as the portable systems the U.S. armed forces use to set up a communication network in places where infrastructure is lacking.
“The technologies that they’re using today are not that different from what their grandparents would’ve used to put out fires 50 years ago,” says John Dabiri, Centennial Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering at Caltech and a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).
To outline how science and technology could address the problem, PCAST on February 22 issued a new report to President Biden called Modernizing Wildland Firefighting to Protect Our Firefighters. In it, the council recommends a series of ways to provide firefighters with tools and technologies to do their job better and more safely. Frances Arnold, Caltech’s Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry, and one of PCAST’s three co-chairs, says the need for such action is clear with 100 million Americans now living in areas threatened by wildfire.
“This important and timely report addresses the need and opportunities to use science and technology to fight the wildfires that are devastating communities throughout the West-this threat to lives and livelihoods is growing as we confront the effects of climate change,” says Arnold, a Nobel laureate who also serves as director of the Donna and Benjamin M. Rosen Bioengineering Center.
Arnold and her co-chairs tapped Dabiri and Kathy Sullivan, PhD, a former NASA astronaut and administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to lead a PCAST study investigating the problem. The group’s work included meetings with President Biden and Vice President Harris at the White House. “The President encouraged us to prioritize the needs of frontline firefighters, so much of our work involved getting to know the challenges faced by our boots on the ground,” Dabiri says.
The council’s first and most important recommendation, Dabiri says, is to get the best existing tools into firefighters’ hands, especially systems that could give them a better idea of exactly where the flames are spreading in real time. Firefighters in the field sometimes use aircraft and satellite imagery, as well as ground-based sensors for fire detection and monitoring, GPS systems for location tracking, and radio for communications. However, the PCAST report found that failing infrastructure, antiquated technology, and a lack of integration between various firefighting agencies prevented the firefighters from making best use of these tools to stay in touch and stay on top of a fast-moving blaze.
One reason for the shortfall, Dabiri says, is that agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service are overburdened by the cost of battling the increasing number of huge wildfires in recent years. “That cost is increasing exponentially over time,” Dabiri says, “At the end of the day, there’s no budget left over to think about investments for the next season.”
To that end, the council recommends establishing a joint-agency executive office charged with getting the right technology into the right hands. It also recommends following the model of the Department of Defense, which has established science and technology offices whose purpose is to ensure soldiers have the best technology in hand.
“Let’s take technologies that we know exist today, that don’t require inventing anything new, and make sure we have those tools in the hands of our firefighters in the same way that when we send our troops into harm’s way, we make sure that they have the best science and technology available to them,” Dabiri says. “That was, to our minds, the most important recommendation we could make.”
PCAST further recommends reassessing existing technologies that could be pulled into firefighting at any stage to improve response, as well expanding access to archival satellite datasets that could help researchers better predict and model how fires start and spread. Lastly, the council looks to the future, suggesting a focus on where advanced technologies that rely on artificial intelligence and autonomous systems could aid firefighters.
Dabiri gives the example of using robotic systems to set “back burns,” a common firefighting practice in which firefighters on the ground create controlled burns to eliminate fuel in the path of a fire. It is possible, he says, to envision uncrewed aerial vehicles, or drones, doing this job instead, because they could reach a remote location faster than a human could. Such systems are not yet in use, but start-up companies are already investigating the possibility.
It will take a serious investment to modernize firefighting, Dabiri says. But it is a small one compared to the billions of dollars now spent to combat wildfires, and, he argues, money well spent. “That way, we are not putting out a bunch of 100,000-acre fires. We are putting out those fires that threaten lives and property more rapidly with these next-generation tools. That’s the vision.”