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How Much Spectrum Do You Need to Fight a Large Wildland Fire?

In 2003, a large wildland fire in San Bernardino County, Calif., called "The Old Fire," caused $42 million in damage and burned more than 35 square miles while destroying 993 homes and causing six fatalities.

Fanned by high winds and fueled by abundant dry vegetation, this incident grew quickly and taxed the ability of local emergency officials to manage evacuations and road closures ahead of the fast moving firestorm. At the incident peak, more than 1,000 vehicles were on scene providing firefighting, security and support functions.

The Assessment of Future Spectrum and Technology Report issued by the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) answers the title’s question. The report identifies the spectrum and technology required until the year 2020 to meet public-safety user requirements and to help drive policy on spectrum and funding, standards development and the public-safety vendor community.

NPSTC gathered feedback on broadband applications and use from public-safety practitioners and technologists, using questionnaires and focus groups, to build the case for a desired future for public safety.

The focus groups brought together multidisciplinary teams with representatives from fire, EMS, law enforcement and others to discuss tactics and strategies at the scene of a specific event. As the groups discussed their response to an emergency event, they also identified various data and video applications that would be needed to support their operations. Following is an excerpt from their response.

What Resources Would Be Needed to Fight a Fire Like This?

“Fire and rescue units would arrive in the area of the fire and immediately conduct an assessment to determine the size of the fire, how quickly it was spreading, growing in size and intensity, what exposures were immediately threatened, and what exposures were soon to be threatened.

"Law enforcement units would arrive and would be briefed on which areas and neighborhoods were in immediate danger and would start directing the closure of certain roadways and initiate evacuation of targeted neighborhoods.

“Airborne video would be needed to gain a full understanding of the fire behavior. Helmet video from individual firefighters or vehicle video from selected fire engines, would also help command "see" the big picture with the incident. GIS information would be needed to make appropriate evacuation plans and to select the best routes for emergency vehicles moving and for evacuees leaving the scene.

"As the incident grows in size and intensity, mutual aid units are arriving from outside the local area. Because these units do not understand local roads, they need access to GIS and mapping information.

“Command needs to visualize the location of all units operating in the area to make appropriate decisions regarding unit deployment. Automatic Personnel Location data is needed when vehicles are operating in smoky conditions and areas of low visibility. AVL was needed when firefighting and law enforcement personnel were away from their vehicles.

"In the event of a distress call, it would be critical to quickly pinpoint the employee’s position.”

To learn more about how NPSTC determined the needed amount of spectrum and other important recommendations for public safety voice and broadband telecommunications, review the Assessment of Future Spectrum and Technology Report (PDF, 1.8 mb).

Marilyn Ward is executive director of the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council.

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