Thomas R. Temin

County is blazing a trail in the training of firefighters

Last summer a house in my neighborhood nearly burned down. It was a rare quiet Friday night at my house; my wife and I were roused from enjoying a bottle of wine and the sound of chirping crickets out on the patio. If you've never seen a house burn, or any similar conflagration, believe me, it's a sight you won't soon forget.

House fires are a rare occurrence in the typical suburb, as is the sudden appearance of every size and shape of fire-fighting apparatus.

Watching the fire companies and related emergency service workers, it was easy to see that communications technologies are as integral to emergency management as the diesel-powered red trucks. Less clear is how computers might benefit municipalities in fighting fires and preventing the loss of life and property.

At least one fire department hopes to learn about fires and fire fighting by using computer simulations.

After experiencing ravaging wildfires in the mid-1990s, Los Angeles County has been working with the Atmospheric and Climate Sciences Group at the Energy Department's Los Alamos National Laboratory to develop a supercomputer simulation model for fires.

As GCN/State & Local's Trudy Walsh reports in this issue, the application will help predict fire behavior and give firefighters a realistic simulation tool that will let them practice dangerous situations.

This is innovative. First, the tool leverages federal resources, namely Nirvana Blue, a trillion-calculation-per-second supercomputer developed by Energy and SGI. Access to this level of supercomputing takes intergovernmental cooperation aided by grants. Few, if any, nonfederal agencies can afford their own supercomputer, much less one on par with Nirvana Blue.

Second, it's a creative approach to the age-old problem of fighting fires. The resulting application is easily transferable to fire departments everywhere. Perhaps deaths such as those in last month's Worcester, Mass., warehouse fire could be prevented with the training such a simulation could yield.

Fire fighting has changed a lot. Battling a blaze is but one task on a list of duties assigned to firefighters, who are also often emergency medical technicians and hazardous-spill experts. The equipment has become more sophisticated, as have fire-fighting techniques.

Yet training still consists mainly of practicing on real fires in controlled situations. Just as jet pilots rely on simulators to learn their craft, perhaps firefighters will benefit from using information technology, alleviating the costs and the danger of live-action training.

Thomas R. Temin

Editorial director

Internet: [email protected]


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