Before getting into the details, I want to thank the gracious staff of CAL FIRE for taking the time to talk with us and suffering through my barrage of questions with well-spoken answers. This group is top notch. After living in California for most of my life, I know I owe these folks a lot for all their dedication and hard work.
I am away from my normal office at the University of New Hampshire to be out at NASA Ames for a week and half to collaborate with the GeoCam team. The GeoCam project, lead by Trey Smith, is similar to a number of ways to projects that I work on. They use the G-1 Phone with Google Android to upload tactical information from CAL FIRE personnel in the field (specifically geotagged images with position, orientation, and notes), which are then displayed on web interfaces and inside of Google Earth. This is very similar to what I would like to see be available for the marine debris, oil spill, and whale location teams in NOAA. I am also interested in mobile applications that allow creation of content for products like the GeoCoastPilot – a 4D interactive port visualization used by mariners before entering a port. Collaboration and cross-pollination is even easier in that both the GeoCam team and I use Python, Django, and Google Earth. The python usage in the GeoCam team might be partly my fault from when I worked in the same building at NASA Ames in the mid to late 90’s.
On Friday, Trey, Alex Roederer and I went to north of the San Francisco Bay to visit two CAL FIRE installations as a part of the GeoCam project. The GeoCam team was delivering phones to these sites and training the staff how to use them. For me, it was a chance to see the phones, training, and most importantly the operations of the CAL FIRE staff. The CAL FIRE team has one key property that NOAA’s response teams do not have – CAL FIRE responds to huge number of incidents during fire season in a small area (California). NOAA’s teams respond all over the country and sporadically as incidents occur infrequently.
Our first stop was the CAL FIRE Air Attack Station in Sonoma, CA. This facility houses two S2T Turbo Tracker tankers and an OV-10 observation plane. Trey described these planes in a previous post and he has some excellent pictures of the OV-10 (Air Attack 140). You can read more about the history of the planes use for fire fighting in California in the CAL FIRE aviation history writeup.
OV-10 observation plane (left) and S2T tanker staged on the tarmac ready for operations.
Alex and I got a tour of the S2T (T-85). Where as the OV-10 circles overhead providing coordination, this plane delivers fire retardant right in front of fires from 100-150 feet over the ground at 150 knots (172 mph). We got an explanation of how the plane operates while sitting in the pilot and copilot seats. That makes it all very real. Before getting in the plane, we were instructed exactly what not to touch as the plane was ready to go for fire fighting.
Kurt (left) and Alex (right) in the cockpit of the S2T Air Attack 85.
Once inside the cockpit, the most striking thing is how low tech the controls are. There are no map displays and the only electronic displays are at most a couple of rows of text. I’ve become used to seeing radar and automatic identification system (AIS) chart display systems on ships that show what is around. The aircraft has a GPS with a text display and a TCAS that displays the identity of aircraft around, but requires scrolling through the list of planes. This identification display is even more restricted than the minimum keyboard display (MKD) that mariners have concluded is almost useless. However, in this case, the pilots are being directed from overhead by the controller in the OV-10 observation plane, so it’s less important to have this as a map display. Navigation is done on paper charts on the team’s kneeboards. The S2T has bubble windows in the cockpit, so it is possible to put your head outside of the frame and see straight down or behind the plane.
We did not get as much time with the OV-10 as it was in the middle of some quick tire work to get it rapidly back into service. These impressive observation platforms saw service in Vietnam. The visibility appears to be even better than that found in the S2T. These guys are monitoring and able to talk on up to 6 radio frequencies at the same time. They have to be communicating with the fire fighters on the ground, the helicopters, the S2T tankers, approaching aircraft, and the operations centers.
GeoCam Mobile G-1 image from the back seat position in the OV-10 as the plane crosses Lake Berryessa on the way to an incident.
We got a look at the dispatch center for the air operations in Sonoma. These are the people who oversee the reading of planes and send them off to fight the fires based on the requests sent from the command center.
View of the tarmac from the dispatch center.
When the call comes in with a location, the team uses the computer to generate a range and bearing. They use the wall mounted maps to double check the computer. They send the range and bearing along with a longitude and latitude allowing the pilots to also double check.
The secondary map for range and bearing used to cover all of California.
The officer in charge spent quite a while with us explaining how the team coordinates operations both in the office and on-site. For on-site, they have a relatively new strategy to ensure everyone is safe. It starts with an outer ring where an approaching fire fighting aircraft reports in to the observer. If the craft does not hear anything, they can proceed to a next ring a number of miles out. At this ring, they have to hold in an orbit if they do not hear from the observation plane. Once they have been called into the fire scene, they have to enter one of three levels based on the aircraft type. Closest to the ground is the region where the helicopters operate. Above that is an altitude range for the S2T tankers to orbit awaiting instructions to attack the fire. At the top/highest altitude is where the OV-10’s orbit in an opposite direction from the tankers. By orbiting in opposite directions, they are only in a each others blind spots for a fraction of a second on each pass. When a new OV-10 observation team enters the scene, they pull up on the observer plane that has been before and orbit together passing operational information with both observers having almost the same perspective.
Tom Knecht at one of the 5 command desks at the St. Helena command center.
After spending the first half of the day with Sonoma Air Attack, we headed over the hills to the Sonoma/Lake/Napa Emergency Command Center in St. Helena. This center was recently upgraded to give each station 4 to 5 separate computers to handle all of the IT needs in addition to the radios they are using to coordinate operations. While we never hope that there are fires, a fire called in just after we arrived was a good opportunity to see how they handle the initial moments of an incident. We heard the 911 call for a fire from someone’s cell phone with a very vague description of the location of the fire. A team of three discussed what the caller meant by the place names the person used. They combined computer searches, Google Earth, and traditional maps to quickly come to agreement as to the location. It turned out to be in the operational area of the command center to the north, so the team crisply handed off the operations to the neighboring center.
Trey training CAL FIRE staff how to collect images and notes with the GeoCam Mobile application.
After the fire handoff, the team was able to rotate team members outside to Trey and Alex for training on the GeoCam phones that the CalFire folks are testing. The most notable moment of the training came at the end of the session where several Captains remark how easy it was to figure out how to use the phone with the GeoCam application.
Inspecting images collected with a GeoCam Mobile G-1 phone in the Google Earth view of the GeoCam Share database.