Wildfire disaster scenario: New report highlights how new communication technologies improve emergency response

June 1, 2016

The Canada – United States (U.S.) border is the longest international border in the world, reaching almost 9,000 km. This poses major challenges when it comes to emergency response, including efficient cross-border sharing of information during emergencies that affect both countries.

“Disasters such as wildfires and floods do not simply follow the borders on a map. It is important that jurisdictional neighbours work together to increase awareness and provide our communities and residents with the best possible information and response when faced with an emergency,” said Duane McKay, the Fire Commissioner for the Province of Saskatchewan.

So what happens if an emergency occurs in Canada near the border where there is no cell or data coverage and the closest first response team is in the U.S.? A newly released report on the third Canada-U.S. Enhanced Resiliency Experiment (CAUSE III) highlights valuable results that respond to this very question. CAUSE III took place in November 2014 in Willow Creek, Saskatchewan (located very close the U.S. border) and surrounding areas. It brought together Defence Research and Development Canada’s Centre for Security Science (DRDC CSS), Public Safety Canada, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate, and numerous other partners, to test technologies that can be deployed in remote areas to provide wireless communication capabilities.

In order to set the stage, the participants were given with the following fictional scenario: An intense lightning storm has passed through Northern Montana with several lightning strikes recorded around Wild Horse Alberta, and Willow Creek, Saskatchewan, which ignited the dry prairie grass. Despite the best efforts of the local fire fighters, the windy conditions have enabled the fires to spread. The Wild Horse fire, proving particularly intense, has spread into Montana towards Havre and joined with the Willow Creek fire, creating an overall fire, which spanned over more than 150 square kilometers. The fire is spreading quickly and the high winds are constantly changing, posing an on-going threat to people, property, and livestock. The ongoing firefighting operations require extensive cross-border and multi-agency collaboration. Unfortunately, the first responders are facing an additional challenge; they are working in an area with no internet or cell coverage.

Based on this fictional wildfire scenario, the experiment aimed to demonstrate how Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology (also known as 4G) could enhance response capabilities in an area where no communications infrastructure existed. More specifically, it allowed first responders to evaluate the difference between using their standard push-to-talk radio system and using LTE, the latest technology used to transmit internet data over cellphones. The main goal was to improve awareness of the situation in order to better manage it. This included co-ordinating responders, damage assessment, awareness of environmental hazards (such as weather or terrain), affected population, and location of resources such as food and water.

“Consider an Incident Commander (IC) in a bunker listening to a crackling radio crowded with frantic voice traffic. Now, imagine the same IC with a detailed web-based map application showing real-time incident particulars, personnel and equipment deployments, their status, live high-definition streaming video from the field, and the ability to share operational details with other incident participants in real time, regardless of their location.  That the responders also have a high-speed internet connection and instant access to the largest information store on earth is of course a bonus as well,” said Howard Georgeson, Deputy Commissioner - Director, Provincial Public Safety Telecommunications Network/Logistics at Emergency Management and Fire Safety, Ministry of Government Relations, Government of Saskatchewan.

On the first day, the standard voice radio system was tested, and “it would take 10 to 20 minutes to scope out the information needed for mission control to make decisions,” said Joe Fournier, Portfolio Manager, Wireless Technologies, DRDC CSS.

On the second day, a network of deployable LTE systems was used instead. One of these made use of a large helium filled balloon (also referred to as “Cell on a Balloon”). It flew at approximately 200 metres above ground and carried a cellular radio system in a container hanging underneath. It provided cellular coverage to a much larger area than a regular cellular tower. By using Internet applications on their phones, tablets, and laptops, participants were able to send e-mails, share photos, stream videos, and access real-time interactive maps on their phones in areas that otherwise would not have cellular service.

“On the first day, using the push-to-talk land radios, it would take 10 to 20 minutes, whereas on the second day, they were doing the same thing in seconds. Deployable communication technology can take minutes, even hours off response times and makes everything more effective in saving lives and property,” adds Fournier.

Walter R. Magnussen, professor at Texas A&M University, said the improved system was important because it allowed better communication between Canada and the U.S. “By using this new technology for the first time, U.S. responders were able to collaborate much better with Canadian first responders. Posting was simple, and the information gathered was fantastic. You had a much better idea of what was going on,” he said.

One of the goals of the experiment was to showcase future emergency communications capabilities that can help first responders in their jobs. The experiment highlighted the need for additional training and exercises in the use of devices and applications.

“This was the first time we began to embed LTE technology into such an experiment, so of course a lot of questions were raised. However, it gave us a great jumpstart for what issues we have to resolve in the future,” said Magnussen.

Other future considerations noted during the experiment include acceptance, standardization and simplicity of use. “The technology is obviously out there. We need to lock down standardized operational requirements without stifling the innovators that are finding solutions to problems we never even thought of addressing previously,” concludes Georgeson.

The experiment mentioned in this story was one of two scenarios conducted during the third Canada-U.S. Enhanced Resiliency Experiment (CAUSE III). You can read about the other scenario here. CAUSE III is a collaborative effort between Defence Research and Development Canada’s Centre for Security Science (DRDC CSS), Public Safety Canada and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (DHS S&T), in partnership with various provincial, municipal and non-governmental organizations.

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