Firefighters do digital battle

Firefighters do digital battle

DOD technology helps Forest Service and Army contain California blaze

By William Jackson
GCN Staff







Network administrator Terry Hinsley uses HDSL equipment to help battle California fires.



Fort Hunter Liggett, south of Monterey, Calif., is one of the Army's largest training facilities and provides Army Reserve units with a digital battlefield for training exercises.

When recent forest fires threatened the base, the information management team used digital battlefield technology in earnest, setting up voice and data links for more than 1,200 firefighters and support personnel, plus a small air force from the Forest Service.

'It's the first time I've seen [battlefield technology] used,' said Roderick Florence, an electrical engineer with the Forest Service's telecommunications group.

By the time the fires were brought under control, the Army base had given the main fire camp a T1 data link and 60 voice and fax lines that handled up to 15,000 faxes and tens of thousands of voice calls a day. The Forest Service downloaded satellite imagery and weather forecasts from the Internet to aid the effort.

Strong point

'It's something often requested by our firefighters but not always fulfilled,' Florence said.

'It's our forte,' said Keith Gray, Fort Hunter Liggett's director of information management.

High-bit-rate digital subscriber line (HDSL) equipment bought to assist the firefighters will be used by troops that are in training at the 165,000-acre preserve, and it will be ready for future fires.

The Pentagon's digitized battlefield concept calls for plenty of bandwidth in the field, and the base provides it during training.

'We try to keep it state-of-the-art,' Gray said. 'Signal units are getting scarce, and when they come here to play they don't always have resources available, so we try to help them out as much as possible.'

Dial tone on the base comes from a Meridian SL-1 switch from Northern Telecom Inc., which connects to Pacific Bell Telephone of San Francisco by a 622-Mbps OC-12 fiber-optic connection.

Data travels from a Microsoft Windows NT network over a fiber backbone to troops in the field, who get service over a four-pair copper loop from the switch around the training area. Tactical data connections go over an HDSL T1 link to the post network provided by a PairGain T1 Integrator device from Vina Technologies Inc. of Fremont, Calif.

Lightning started fires on Sept. 8 near the base, in the adjacent Los Padres National Forest, and the Forest Service set up a camp far from the fire within the base. Over the next nine weeks, the camp grew into a small town of personnel fighting half a dozen fires that eventually burned nearly 100,000 acres.

In addition to firefighters, the camp supported planning and weather teams and medical, finance, public relations and food service personnel managing supplies of food, water and fuel. Equipment ranged from hoes and rakes to bulldozers, helicopters and airplanes.

'All those resources had to be managed,' said Florence, who served two three-week tours as communications director at the fire camp.

The base's information management team dedicated six people to support the fire camp. Cellular service in the area is unreliable because of the mountainous terrain, and initial telephone service to the camp was only seven lines over an 18-pair copper cable that tapped into the tactical loop 2,000 feet from the camp. The lines were bumped up to 12, the most that the copper could provide, Gray said.

The Forest Service used a microwave relay system to supply another 24 lines. A transceiver and a multiplexer were set up at the camp and on a hill near the base telephone switch.

'They were still screaming for more,' Gray said.

He had been considering adding an HDSL connection on the base to expand tactical voice connections in the field, and the Forest Service demands prompted him to get a second PairGain system.

HDSL delivers symmetric 1.544 Mbps over a two-pair copper loop. The fire camp had four pairs for primary and redundant circuits for an additional 24 voice lines, bringing the total number of phone lines to 60.

Integrators at the fire camp and at the switch multiplexed incoming traffic into a PairGain 231-line card to be sent over the copper loop, where it was demuxed at the receiving end. Two PairGain repeaters sat on the nine-mile run between the camp and the switch.

'Because of the complex nature of the fire and the terrain, communication was critical for us,' Florence said.

Not only did the setup manage the logistics of feeding and supplying a growing staff, it provided data that helped fire behaviorists plan their attacks. Information from satellite photos and aerial infrared scans was integrated with terrain data in a geographic information system and combined with weather information to determine where firefighters were needed and could be safely sent.

It's a setup

The fire camp site will get permanent improvements to encourage the Forest Service to return when fires break out again, Gray said.

'The next time they come, hopefully it will be plug-and-play for them,' he said.

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