IT Key in Response to Summer Fires

Information technology resources have helped keep alive critical business operations and manage firefighting during this summer's raging blazes throughout the U.S. West.

A sophisticated communications system has been a vital tool for managing outages in Montana Power Co.'s high-voltage transmission system, said Leroy Patterson, the utility's director of systems operations. Much of Montana Power's 107,000-square-mile service area has been hit by forest fires.

Communications systems have also lent a hand to firefighters battling the fires, which have burned almost 9,000 square miles in the West this year. But communications managers at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, said they are close to running out of the vital wireless communications kits used by firefighters and managers on the front lines.

This summer's fires have created "significant problems" for Butte-based Montana Power, said Patterson, with infernos burning directly under various high-voltage transmission lines, which are critical to supplying power to the strained Western power grid. When an outage occurs, an "out-of-service" signal is relayed over the company's internal communications system based on an OC-12 Synchronous Optical Network (Sonet) backbone, said Elisabeth Rice, director of utility communications at Montana Power.

Field repair crews are directed to the site of an outage by a voice radio system that operates through repeaters that "hang" off the fiber-optic backbone, explained Rice. "We can pretty much cover our entire service area with this system," she said. The Sonet backbone went into full operation a year and a half ago, she added.

Patterson said the power company relied on daily situation reports posted by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) and its seven constituent federal agencies. April Baily, chairwoman of the U.S. Forest Service's webmaster staff in Washington, said her agency set up its forest fire information Web sites last year. It saw a significant spike in traffic in July, recording 16,114 hits on its fire information pages, more than double the 6,749 visits in July of last year.

Numbers are of paramount concern to Steve Jenkins, operations manager of the NIFC National Incident Communications and Infrared Operations Group, which supplies communications systems used to manage and help protect fire crews as well as to support logistics operations at base camps and direct water bombers to the fires. The NIFC has about 1,400 communications kits, which include 8,000 radios for fire operations nationwide.

Memorably Bad Season

This season is "the worst I have ever seen," Jenkins said. "I'm down to the stage where I can support only four or five more fires."

The kits provide fire managers and personnel with communications systems ranging from 2-watt voice radios used by the fire crews - with one radio allocated to every four or five people on a crew - to tactical satellite radios mounted in base camps and repeaters installed on mountaintops that relay signals from a base camp to the fire crews.

Jenkins also supplies fire teams with ground-to-air radio to help control the water bombers and maintains an inventory of radios ready for installation in military helicopters shifted to firefighting duties.

NIFC fire managers are tapping into a variety of databases to help oversee the nation's worst fire season in more than a decade. According to Mike Barrowcliff, group leader for the Forest Service's national systems group in Boise, users get daily situation reports and information on firefighting resources nationwide from a mainframe application. The reports are distributed via a Web browser at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's computer center in Kansas City, Mo.

"This shows us what is out there and helps the managers make resource-allocation decisions," Barrowcliff said.

Another key application is the Weather Information Management System (WIMS), also housed on a Kansas City mainframe and currently accessible only through aging IBM-type 3270 terminals. This week, the NIFC awarded a $400,000 contract to Enterprise Integration Inc. in New Orleans to develop a Web-based interface to WIMS.

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