The New Digital Breed Of Fire Command

As California suffers through another cataclysmic fire season, its next generation firefighting weapon is set to lose funding in a month.

Over three decades, Jack Thorpe developed military command technology for hundreds of thousands of troops serving in major conflicts up through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But as he sat in his San Diego home in 2003, he watched his county falling victim to mass destruction. The Cedar Fire, the largest wildfire in California history, swept across hundreds of thousands of acres, killing over a dozen people.

Thorpe, a retired Air Force colonel, found himself asking the same questions he’d dove into in the military. In his words: “What commanders do is the same thing they’ve always done, but can technology fundamentally change the nature of command?”

Jack Thorpe (left), and Ron Roberts

The result of Thorpe’s efforts to bring warfighting tech to firefighting is a live online command network, The Next-Generation Incident Command System (NICS), largely funded by the Department of Homeland Security and coded by researchers at an M.I.T.-affiliated lab. The timeline of its creation is a story of how dangerous jobs evolve--and as its funding cycle ends this fall, how quickly that progress can stall.

Like A Google Map That Lives Depend On

NICS doesn’t look particularly next-generation when you first see it. Housed in a University of California, San Diego supercomputer, and accessible by any laptop, smartphone, or tablet, the interface consists of Google Maps-like interactives annotated with symbols and dots. Menus line the right side and user notations take up space below. Thorpe has found that, in the most dangerous work environments on Earth, that kind of familiarity is a good thing.

How NICS Works

The 69-year-old holds a PhD in industrial psychology, the scientific study of human behavior in the workplace, and he’s a kind of maestro of virtual military command. Michael Macedonia, a military technology expert at the University of Central Florida, called him “a pioneer, a thought leader, a disrupter, all those things.”

Communications are a central aspect of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), a school of thought calling for radical changes to military strategy in response to disruptive new technologies, from smart weapons to drones. For the past decade, Thorpe and a team of volunteers, mostly firefighters, have worked to bring about the firefighting equivalent of RMA, as the increasing number of fires mushroom into their own disruptive threat.

Thanks to extreme drought and population shifts, a University of California study found that fires that once took a week to subdue now take more than a month to control, leaving communities and firefighters more vulnerable. Thorpe thinks a faster command system can improve their odds. “We’re way beyond the point where people need to die for this,” he said.

NICS is a spin-off of a set of policies called the Incident Command System (ICS)--created in the '70s and implemented over the course of a decade--with the goal of standardizing the Babel-esque confusion resulting when multiple agencies responded to an emergency. Before ICS, authorities found they were slowed down because one department’s wording for the same thing--something as simple as the title for the person in charge--differed from another’s. ICS standardized the language and the chain of command.

NICS transfers the whole process online and in real time rather than confining it to radio orders between commanders. For first responders who have seen it in action since 2010, the system--developed by M.I.T. Lincoln Laboratory, a government-funded research center --is a stunning step forward.

“What used to take 12 hours,” says California fire chief Rich Drozen, referring to the coordination in a sprawling wildfire fight, “realistically can take 12 minutes."

Transition in dangerous environments is never easy. The old 12-hour delay in coordination was something California firefighters understood.

Marc Hafner

“We are very protective of our processes in the fire service,” says Cal Fire Deputy Chief Marc Hafner. “They are built on tragedy and devastation. We are very conservative about changing.” Since 2011, firefighters in the drought-stricken state have fought more than 7,000 wildland fires a year. California is ahead of that pace in 2014.

Hafner and his colleagues drove trucks with extended cabs to fit large tubs crammed with a library of binders of every imaginable map marking topography and territories in the state’s complex jurisdictional web. Pre-NICS, they would arrive at a fire, file through the binders, tear out a sheet, spread it across the hood of the truck, use a marker to draw the perimeter, and voila, create the official fire map. But only those at the command post could view it and then broadcast the information to fire crews who were far away, defending homes block by block, or on the fireline itself.

Drawing a fire map in NICS

Today, at the first sign of a fire, incident commanders can launch NICS: A fire chief marks the fire’s origin, examines the area’s terrain, checks cameras high on mountaintops for signs of smoke, tracks every emergency vehicle, and overlays census data to determine the number of residences in harm’s way. Anyone with a NICS password can log in and view the commander’s plan immediately.

"It’s a tool that will save, if it hasn’t already, lives and property," says retired California chief BiIl Clayton.

Data Layers in NICS

He points to the Esperanza Fire, the 2006 blaze that killed a five-member U.S. Forest Service crew, as an example. The firefighters were overcome by what is known as an area ignition, where flames join and flare, traveling rapidly over a large distance. Clayton wonders if the conditions that led to the fire speeding over a ridge could have been foreseen on NICS, prompting the unit to move to a safe zone or an order for an air crew to come to their aid.

But that’s how Clayton feels now. A decade ago it was harder to convince him.

“Field Truth”

As Thorpe watched the television report in 2003, he jotted down the name of one of the incident commanders on the Cedar Fire--Clayton--as he spoke to an on-air reporter. He would soon find out Clayton was one of a handful of veterans--Hafner calls them the “Fire Jedi”--who are recognized masters of the craft.

After the 2003 disaster was over--consuming 273,000 acres in San Diego County and destroying 2,232 homes--Thorpe contacted Clayton with his revamped command idea. The Fire Jedi was skeptical. “At first, I thought it was some kind of hoax when he called, that he was just another crank guy.”

But Clayton allowed him to ride along to fires over the next several months, so Thorpe could pick up the rudiments of emergency operations, and, crucially, firefighter lingo. (When a fire surges, for instance, it “blows up.”)

Thorpe went on countless runs with crews, including to the deadly Esperanza Fire. On the ride-alongs, Clayton stressed an idea he refers to as “tired-dirty-hungry.” Meaning: If you’re planning to build something elaborate for anyone who has been wielding a hose or an ax for back-to-back shifts with walls of flame on every side in stifling heat, you will fail.

(Nested menus, a common software feature, were an early function NICS designers loved but firefighters loathed. They were quickly jettisoned, as were split screens with data on one side and maps on the other. Thorpe calls it con-ops, or absorbing firefighters’ concepts of operation. Clayton calls it “field truth,” establishing what works in the midst of a disaster.)

Clayton, though impressed with Thorpe’s grasp of emergency communications, decided to undertake his own fact-finding mission in 2004. He spent time flying in Black Hawks in the Mojave Desert, watching and listening as pilots used Thorpe’s program, called the Command Post of the Future, to offer up live data that superiors could act upon in real time.

Still, he wanted someone to bring him as close to the action as he had brought Thorpe, so despite the then-ferocious fight against insurgents in Iraq, Clayton went to Baghdad. Accompanying the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, he watched military brass planning in the confines of a shielded base in the western outskirts of the city and troops simultaneously responding to orders outside. He took one flight over the combat zone, made two runs on armored Humvees to secure a suspected terrorist training center south of Baghdad, and got so close to the action he suffered a minor shrapnel wound.

In Iraq, Clayton found his own field truth. The troops, he said, had “a common operating picture,” and despite the extreme conditions, the command coordination was clear. “Tired-dirty-hungry and being shot at at the same time?” he says. Thorpe’s vision locked in.

“It took a couple of years for me to really understand carefully what he did as a fire commander and it took him a couple of years to appreciate what this technology could do,“ Thorpe says.. “It’s a long process, a long dance you have to do.”

Roadside Fire: Mikeledray via Shutterstock

Going Online in California and Beyond

With Clayton and other Cal Fire influentials on board by 2005, Thorpe continued to observe fire scenes, tucking away impressions and learning to simplify his notions of what software should be, while considering the best partner to shape the early stages of what became NICS. In 2006 another spate of San Diego County fires gave Thorpe the opportunity he needed--a Lincoln Laboratory team agreed to his call to come out west to witness an emergency firsthand.

Working with Thorpe and Cal Fire, the MIT team built a system that launched in late 2010: Rescuers activated NICS during a flood in Riverside County. (Though wildfires have been the lab for NICS, as of this summer more than 85% of incidents NICS has been active on are fire-related--proponents say it’s a natural tool for law enforcement, border security, broader emergency management, and even major event planning.)

The application has been used at more than 260 emergency scenes, mostly in California, and in a limited role at two of the nation’s highest profile disasters in 2013--CalFire fought the Rim Fire, while the Massachusetts National Guard used the program during the Boston Marathon bombing, though neither agency was in command when the disasters hit.

The southern Australian state of Victoria, struck by firestorms both this year and in 2009, is preparing to adopt NICS, and about 2,000 users from nearly 500 federal, state, and local agencies have signed on as well. “Those of us who are participating cannot fully grasp what it’s going to be in five or 10 years,” Hafner says.

But even as NICS has found homes far from its center in California, it’s struggling to find funding from the Golden State. Its initial investment fell under the Lincoln Laboratory budget, but the greater part of its expansion came about because of a multi-year Homeland Security grant that ends Sept. 30.

NICS has local advocates like Ron Roberts, a San Diego County supervisor. Roberts has come through with emergency allocations for new tools before, but he cannot come up with the $6 million supporters would like to secure to keep NICS on track.

Roberts has raised the issue with everyone from Senator Dianne Feinstein to Gov. Jerry Brown’s Office of Emergency Services, thus far to no avail. Unlike its recent bleak budgets, the state is expecting a growing surplus by next year, and Brown called for increasing Cal Fire’s budget by $66 million to pay for more hours for firefighters. (This month, Congress again abandoned its attempts to fully fund for its firefighting forces.)

“If somebody is going to pull the trigger and make something happen, it has to be right now,” Roberts said. “I’m disappointed it hasn’t happened yet, but I think it will.”

So does Thorpe.

“I’m optimistic,” he said. “Not for any good justifiable reason. It’s just too important not to do it.”

[Forest Fire: Neo Edmund via Shutterstock]

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