Firefighters One Step Closer to New Technology to Stop Wildfires, Stay Safe

Cantwell’s Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act increases safety, effectiveness, public health

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, the U.S. House of Representatives passed Senator Maria Cantwell’s (D-WA) Wildfire Management Technology Advancement Act, which would bring federal firefighting agencies across the country into the 21st century. The bill passed the House 363-62 with no amendments and now heads to the president’s desk to be signed into law. 

The bill increases firefighter safety by requiring wildfire crews be provided a GPS locator and mandating that drones be used to scout out and map wildfires in real time. Wildfire Today refers to the simultaneous use of real-time mapping and GPS locators as the ‘Holy Grail’ of firefighter safety. 

“[This legislation] will provide these new technology and training tools to empower the Forest Service to help our communities and our firefighters…Real-time fire mapping, more drone technology to give us real-time information about the fires, using NASA satellite information to help us plan post-fires, and giving us more smoke forecasting information to better help our communities and deal with those who are impacted by heavy smoke,” said Cantwell in a speech on the Senate floor earlier today. “These provisions will help firefighters and communities, and we need to do everything we can, as we see fire seasons extending and having more catastrophic events. We need to give communities and firefighters every tool possible.” 

Cantwell’s legislation gives firefighters a host of tools to stay safe while increasing effectiveness and public health. 

Tools that will increase firefighter safety:

  • Safety Alerts for Managers:  The bill requires the Forest Service to update the wildfire decision support software that fire managers use to inform and document their decisions while managing a wildfire.  The system will be revised to alert top managers when a decision is being made that is inconsistent with the plans that everyone is operating under or when the decision may jeopardize the safety of firefighters.  For example, if a manager is about to send firefighters into a place they should not be sent, an alert will sound notifying the wildfire manager. 
  • Injury Database: For the first-time ever, a database will be established to track on-the-job injuries and deaths of wildland firefighters.  Having data to know what types of activities are causing the most injuries will help managers target training and choose actions that can mitigate risk. 
  • GPS Locators for Firefighters:  By the 2021 fire season, all firefighting crews – regardless of whether they are federal, state, or local – working on large wildfires will be equipped with GPS locators.  Fire managers will for the first time ever know the location of the crews in relation to the wildfire.  Review teams have said that knowing this information could have prevented many firefighter fatalities over the years. 

Tools that will increase firefighters’ effectiveness:

  • Real-time Mapping:  By the 2020 fire season, firefighters will be equipped with real-time maps showing where the edges of a wildfire are currently burning.  Right now, firefighters only get to look at and plan from a map that is updated once per day.  This will be accomplished through the use of a network of drones carrying infrared sensors over currently burning wildfires. 
  • More Localized Fire Season Predictions:  Starting this upcoming fire season, the 3-month wildfire forecasts will become much more localized. The bill enables the Forest Service meteorologists to access both satellite data from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and cutting-edge software developed by the Department of Energy National Labs to predict which counties in the US are most likely to experience large wildfires. Currently, these forecasts depict the regions of the country that will experience the worst fire seasons. Knowing the likely locations of large wildfires ahead of time will enable agencies to better pre-position firefighters and FEMA personnel. 

Tools that will increase public health and safety:

  • Smoke forecasts: Starting this upcoming fire season, a meteorologist will be assigned to every large wildfire specifically to provide the public with smoke forecasts.  Over the last three years, communities have become severely impacted from the smoke from wildfires.  Smoke forecasts have provided communities with the information they need in order to plan for public health and tourism. 
  • Mudslide Prevention: Firefighters are always racing to get post-fire erosion control measures installed before the first rains, in order to prevent devastating mudslides.  The bill grants the Forest Service access an existing NASA database that will cut a week off of the amount of time needed to install erosion measures after a wildfire.  A week’s time is often the difference in whether a neighborhood can be saved or not from a post-fire mudslides. 

"For state wildland firefighters and managers—the men and women who respond first to 80 percent of the wildfires that start across the United States regardless of land ownership each year—this legislation promises to equip them with the tools they need to better fight wildfires, while minimizing suppression costs and risk exposure," said Jay Farrell, executive director for the National Association of State Foresters. "America’s firefighters deserve new and emerging technologies that will keep them safer, and for her work to make that happen, the nation's state foresters applaud Senator Cantwell." 

"The fire service appreciates Senator Cantwell’s leadership to solve real problems. The wildfire problem is bad and seems to be getting worse. These technological tools and new ways of fighting an old enemy will make a big difference by saving lives and property in our communities,” said Wayne Senter, a retired fire chief and current executive director of the Washington State Fire Chiefs.  

Last year, Senator Cantwell led passage of the largest package of forestry and wildfire legislation in 15 years. The legislation ended the Forest Service practice of fire-borrowing by establishing a contingency account for use in bad fire years and funds it with over $2 billion a year through 2027. The legislation also freed up over $100 million for fire prevention projects and recreation programs, and halts the continual migration of funding from non-fire programs to pay for the rising costs of firefighting.

The full text of the bill can be found HERE.

A one-pager with more information on the Senate’s public lands package is available HERE.