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Fighting Fire with Firefox

Web-based tech takes us into the future


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two firefighters

Firefighters were shouting but no one in the command center could understand them. Caught in an orange tornado of Santa Ana winds, the crew radioed for help, as they raced against a massive conflagration in a rural stretch near the U.S.-Mexico border. It was a tinder-dry autumn afternoon in 2007, and San Diego County was burning.

Unaware their engine would soon become a seething furnace, the four firefighters labored to save a Potrero man and his teenage son. A torrent of smoke and sand, coupled with a lack of technology, made for blinding conditions. Not even expert pilots—who circled through the charcoal-gray sky like ships lost on a foggy sea—could see them.

“Everybody knew somebody was in serious trouble, but they didn’t know where they were,” says Jack Thorpe, a San Diego-based emergency response consultant. “The fire engulfed their engine, and melted their windshield rubber, so all of a sudden all the windows blew out. They had to jump out and run for their lives.”

A brave helicopter pilot finally rescued his comrades, but not unscathed. County Supervisor Ron Roberts remembers visiting the crew at the UCSD Regional Burn Center. He was struck by how severely they were burned. Worse still, the Potrero man they’d been trying to rescue perished in the fire.

“Everybody knew somebody was in serious trouble, but they didn’t know where they were.”

From the din of the Emergency Operations Center in Kearny Mesa, Roberts realized the very communication tools firefighters rely on were wholly inadequate for 21st-century firestorms. “It became clear we were largely using—I’ll be generous in saying—19th-century technologies,” he says. “I just thought, ‘Okay, I think we can do better.’”

Roberts started talking to brainy strategists and military minds about a new approach to firefighting. One of them was Thorpe, a retired Air Force colonel who had developed advanced technologies for the Department of Defense. Thorpe understood that, even in the fog of war, commanders know the whereabouts of every soldier. He was consulting with MIT Lincoln Laboratory and felt Southern California was fertile ground to develop a Next-Generation Incident Command System, NICS for short.

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