E-Mail, E-Commerce Assist Firefighters

The federal government has developed an arsenal of high-tech tools to fight the worst wildfires in decades in the western United States.

Such applications as e-mail, e-commerce and electronic mapping have played a role in nearly every aspect of the firefighting campaign, from plotting the progress of fires to ordering supplies and even paying the firefighters.

"Computers are being used more and more in fire camps, from business applications for reports and ordering of equipment to [the Global Positioning System] to infrared imagery," said Steve Jenkins, operations manager of the National Interagency Fire Center's Incident Communications and Infrared Operations Group in Boise, Idaho.

Among the innovations on the ground is an extensive e-mail system based in Kansas City, Mo., run by the Agriculture Department and used by fire dispatchers nationwide.

The National Information Technology Center (NITC) enables dispatchers from the fire arena to send out messages when they need equipment or help in a particular area. They can order equipment from federal warehouses located across the country to be airlifted or trucked to a base camp within hours.

And time counts as fires continue to engulf huge tracts of land in the West. Even six seconds of downtime for the server in Kansas City is critical for personnel on the front lines, said Kathleen Rundle, associate chief information officer for NITC. "Our job is to make sure that the servers and the software on those servers stay up and running 24/7. Our job is to provide the IT support for those systems," she said.

Joseph Leo, CIO for the USDA, which oversees the Forest Service, said information technology has made major inroads this season in fighting fires. "If anyone wanted assistance or help, in our view, the Forest Service is incredibly confident to handle it," Leo said.

But the service is not alone. When firefighters want their paychecks and vendors want to get paid on the spot, the National Business Center, run by the Interior Department in Denver, is equipped to instantly distribute cash.

The Civil Air Patrol has used satellite-based GPS and infrared surveys to provide pictures of blazes engulfing forests in South Dakota and Wyoming. Video stills are downloaded to a ground unit and then transmitted to managers for analysis.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has dispatched large transmission vehicles to fire sites to beam communications to satellites. The vehicles carry equipment for radio frequencies as well as voice and data communications. Just by popping an antenna on the roof of a vehicle, a firefighter can use a phone or computer to call for supplies.

And in some cases, vendors are distributing experimental technology for free to enable firefighters to test even more cutting-edge equipment.

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