Online system delivers near-real time GIS data to firefighters

Information is available even when firefighters in the field are cut off from terrestrial wireline and wireless networks

San Diego State University’s Homeland Security program has developed a system to make up-to-date geographic information on wildfire conditions available to firefighters in the field, even when they are cut off from terrestrial wireline and wireless networks.

The system combines satellite and aerial imagery, weather radar and topographical data in a format optimized for delivery over the Inmarsat Plc. Broadband Global Area Network.

“All of that you can package up and send over BGAN,” said Dr. Eric Frost, director of the SDSU Immersive Visualization Center.

The “Viz Lab” has been making Geographic Information System data available online for years, but the marriage of data sets specifically for firefighters formatted for satellite delivery is a new service. Because it is new, Southern California firefighters do not yet have the Inmarsat terminals needed to access it. It is a live production system, but also a demonstration project that could be duplicated by organizations elsewhere in the world.

“It’s a simple set of tools,” Frost said.

The satellite imagery that underlies the system is global, but the Viz Lab data sets combine more detailed topographical data for Southern California area. The data is tuned using software from GeoFusion Inc. to deliver GIS data in a satellite-friendly format over the BGAN satellite link, which can deliver speeds of up to 500 Kbps to mobile terminals.

“You’re not moving terabytes of imagery, you’re moving the exact screen your interested in,” using the GeoFusion format, Frost said.

The Viz Lab gathers tens of terabytes of data from NASA’s Terra and Aqua Earth Observation Satellites. The satellites, which circle the Earth in polar orbits, use the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) to gather data in 36 spectral bands from the entire globe every one or two days. They provide images of the United States twice a day. This imagery is combined with other topographical data to create GIS data.

“We work closely with Google Earth” to develop the GIS data sets, Frost said. The Viz Lab server can handle up to 10 million hits a day.

One of the measurements MODIS can provide is surface temperature, a useful piece of information for a fire map.

Most fires burn about 300 to 325 degrees, Frost said. “Some of the temperatures in the Station Fire” now burning north of Los Angeles “have been 490 to 500 degrees. That’s way too hot to fight.”

The Viz Lab also has an unmanned aerial vehicle that can fly at low levels over fire areas to gather images and measurements to update satellite imagery, along with weather radar data that can show smoke movement and density. All of this can provide a timely and accurate picture of where a fire is, where it is moving and the conditions in and around it. This could replace the tool typically used by firefighters in the field, a PDF map with a line drawing of a fire front.

“This is very useful,” Frost said of the PDF maps. “But there is drastically more you can do.” PDF images also can have high-bandwidth requirements, which can be a problem in remote areas and areas affected by disaster. “You only get a PDF if the whole thing comes through. Otherwise it doesn’t open.”

“By delivering dynamic, real-time information about fire perimeters, weather and ground conditions, Inmarsat and the Viz Lab will enhance the ability of incident commanders to protect lives and property and enhance the safety of firefighters in the field,” said Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, Inmarsat vice president of Global Government Services.

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