IT on front line of Calif. conflagration

FEMA, state agencies, vendors step up to help firefighters' IT infrastructure

At least 14 massive fires are reported to have scorched about 425 square miles from north of Los Angeles to southeast of San Diego. This image, captured by NASA satellites on Oct. 22, shows thick, billowing smoke coming off the numerous large fires and spreading over the Pacific Ocean. Fire activity is outlined in red.

Courtesy of NASA

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is at center stage in the U.S. government's deployment of technology to quell deadly California wildfires.

Federal officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, acknowledged that the government's response to the wildfires is drawing comparisons to FEMA's handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster two years ago. But he also cited the contribution of technology as part of an array of improvements FEMA has adopted to address the disaster.

FEMA has been ladling out a hot alphabet soup of federal agency responses to ease the suffering of those displaced by the disaster, reportedly numbering as many as 1 million people.

NASA participated by providing satellite photos of the fire damage across Southern California.

The federal response, which started in earnest this week, followed state firefighting work that began earlier.

Federal and state responses relied on various technology assets and computer-laced command centers, officials said.

The state's computerized reaction to public demand for information about the disaster swamped the Fire Incident Web site of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).

Cal Fire's chief information officer, Ron Ralph, said in a telephone interview that the increase in traffic to the agency's Web site had overwhelmed the bandwidth allocated for it. The department posted a notice that 'due to extremely high traffic volume, the Cal Fire Incident Web site is not functioning. This temporary page contains the latest information available.'

'We were bursting up to 12 to 14 megabits of traffic,' Ralph added.

IT to the rescue

Ralph contacted AT&T to seek additional bandwidth for Cal Fire's site. 'AT&T doubled our bandwidth within 12 hours,' he said. 'I thought that was pretty impressive.'

The state agency's IT shop benefited from a quirk in an ongoing upgrade project that speeded the bandwidth increase, Ralph said. 'We are in a transitional state. We had 22 [unused] megabits [of bandwidth] on the sideline that AT&T provisioned [for our use] within hours.'

Cal Fire reported on the site last evening that 16 fires had not been contained and noted dozens of injuries in addition to extensive destruction. News reports last night stated that the fire has caused six deaths.

San Diego-based Tachyon helped the fire control teams by lending two portable satellite ground stations for temporary use at fire command centers, Ralph said. Cal Fire's CIO office also is working with AT&T to arrange for loaned satellite uplink and downlink gear.

Ralph said his operation relies on an Oracle database management system on the back end and Citrix for application delivery. The system connects with some 4,500 users via a client server network that uses a virtual private network.

Cal Fire's resources include a suite of applications referred to as the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system, which processes 9-1-1 calls and shunts them to the appropriate agency staff members. 'The CAD system is fully redundant and fielded at 22 locations around the state,' Ralph said.

When fire incidents grow into large problems, Cal Fire switches to its Resource Ordering System (ROS) link.

ROS is a nationwide federal system with hardware based in Kansas City, Mo. Cal Fire uses redundant communications paths to connect with ROS, which in turn is fully interoperable with the CAD suite, Ralph said.

During large fires, Cal Fire relies on ROS to keep track of the various assets, such as bulldozers, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, deployed to fight the conflagrations.

ROS also handles the logistics for keeping firefighters supplied with consumable items, such as food and drinking water in addition to the water and chemicals they spray or drop on fires.

Cal Fire's central IT office relies on Microsoft .NET applications for most of its remaining tools, Ralph said.

Each named fire typically prompts construction of an Incident Command Center 'within shouting distance' of the fire, Ralph said. Those ICCs handle the resource deployment and tracking on the spot.

IT personnel at the on-site centers rely on an application called Inicinet to keep track of various functions, activities, resource needs and other relevant data, Ralph said. The Incinet application communicates with Cal Fire via satellite uplinks or other means, Ralph said.

Several staff members from Cal Fire's central IT office have volunteered to help in the fire zone, Ralph said.

Technology organizations in other state agencies contacted Ralph and volunteered their services during the crisis, he said yesterday evening. The Cal Fire CIO has yet to call on their help because all systems are operating normally now.

The state has established a pool of money called the Emergency Fund to defray costs during natural and man-made disasters, Ralph said. He noted that all funds must be properly accounted for but that the money is available on short notice to respond to crises.

Ralph added that his agency's activities are coordinated with those of the state Emergency Operations Center. Both the state EOC and Cal Fire's central IT offices are located in Sacramento. FEMA said it had sent a representative to the state EOC.

The federal response

Chertoff and FEMA administrator R. David Paulison served as the faces and voices of the federal response to the conflagrations. They took an aerial tour of the affected zone and met with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In a TV interview last night, Chertoff emphasized that two years' planning and preparation since the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe have been put in play to cope with the fires.

Chertoff cited the role of a command network developed in California and implied that public morale in Southern California now compared favorably to that displayed by Gulf Coast residents in the areas lashed by Katrina.

Chertoff and Paulison visited the federal EOC in San Diego for a briefing, press conference and TV interviews.

Despite Chertoff's assurance of the effectiveness of the federal command network, several Cal Fire employees were nonplussed when asked about FEMA's establishment of a command center for the fire disaster.

News of the FEMA role in overseeing Washington's contribution of various resources from several agencies had not filtered down to the operating levels of the state fire control agency, according to telephone inquiries.

FEMA's lengthy description of the many federal activities it is coordinating in the fire response omitted mention of ongoing work by NASA to provide imagery to fire fighting agencies.

A NASA official said in a telephone interview that her agency also is providing near-real time video footage to firefighting agencies. She added that NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base is evaluating the possibility of fielding an unmanned aerial vehicle to gather aerial photos of the region.

FEMA said it had established a staging area in Southern California to mobilize federal assets to cope with the fires and their aftermath.

FEMA's pre-positioned resources for major disasters typically include special mobile offices built from modified recreational vehicles. The agency's RV offices sport computers and telecommunications links so that members of the public who have lost assets such as homes or businesses to disaster damage can apply for federal grants or Small Business Administration loans.

FEMA has created a special 24-hour Regional Response Coordination Center in Pasadena to manage crisis response, according to a prepared agency statement.

FEMA also has activated its National Response Coordination Center to orchestrate activities by federal agencies. The DHS agency also sent a representative to the California Wild Land Fire Services office in Riverside County.

"The safety of the firefighters, individuals and families in the impacted areas is of utmost concern," Paulison said in a prepared statement. He reiterated that theme in televised remarks, during which he also repeatedly emphasized the importance of prayer as response to the catastrophe.

FEMA cataloged other federal firefighting resources provided by the Defense, Transportation, and Health and Human Services departments. The National Guard Bureau, General Services Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and Coast Guard also can provide support, FEMA said.

FEMA said the National Guard had deployed personnel and equipment to support interoperable communications during the crisis. Details of the operations and effectiveness of the federal, state and local interoperable communications systems were not immediately available last night.

For additional NASA images of the California wildfires, click here.

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