Trial By Fire

By Larry Dignan Print this article Print

California uses a real-time system to rally resources to fight wildfires. Will it hook up with a national system?

In October and early November, ErnyleeChamlee monitored fire officials moment by moment, as they called in air tankers, trucks and manpower to fight wildfires raging in Southern California--from her desktop computer in Sacramento.

Chamlee is staff chief of operations, command and control for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF). She is in the control seat in one of the few real-time enterprises whose effectiveness is measured by life –and death. Only by using the kind of decision support systems' allowed by intelligent software and digital communications lines could she track any resource deployed, from airplanes to engines to firefighters to supplies.

But as in many corporations, "real-time" for the CDF is a relative term. Except for the minutes it takes to enter data, the CDF can instantly track the fire resources deployed. Costs are a different matter. California's resource management application doesn't connect with the state's financial systems. Bottom line: The dollar-and-cents impact of fighting fires comes about every 24 hours. When California's firefighting system was developed, moving resources from point A to point B faster was priority..

Replacing the guesswork behind allocating resources is a system dubbed the Multi-Agency Incident Resource Processing System (MIRPS). "MIRPS helps us make sure everything is covered and that we can get the resources where we need them," says Chamlee. "The main thing is that we have to cover for new fires."

Many companies have been pursuing the goal of becoming a real-time enterprise ("The Real Story of Real-Time,'' page 30). But the busy fire season in the West shows one of the few instances where second-by-second decision-making is an absolute requirement. But even California's system, which is a model for a national firefighting edition, slowed as it hit its peak capacity of 500 users during the wildfires, officials say.

According to the CDF's Nov. 26 tally, the wildfires torched 739,597 acres, destroyed 3,631 homes and led to 22 fatalities. Expenses for fighting the fires are more than $150 million and rising.

Here's how MIRPS works. When a fire breaks out, officials determine what they need. If it's clear that a fire is out of control, a commanding officer can ask for reinforcements via radio or phone. From there, a dispatcher takes the call and keys the information into the processing system, which keeps an up-to-the-minute inventory of people, equipment and services available throughout the state. Then, an operations chief such as Chamlee can draw from fire stations in nearby locales first, then draw on faraway crews in Northern California, for instance, as required.

The custom-developed system allows firefighters to access databases on servers using "dumb" machines. The information they request and see is managed on-screen by Windows Terminal Server and Citrix software. Data is communicated over a private network managed by SBC Communications and MCI.

When the system's capacity was strained by the volume of fires in Southern California, the answer was to add two Windows Terminal Servers, says Russ Nichols, manager of applications for the CDF.

Although information is manually extracted from MIRPS to calculate costs, it can't calculate the tab on the fly. California does come up with daily estimates, however. Financial analysts take information from MIRPS, say 25 engines deployed in San Diego, and manually add it to a financial system where costs are added up once a day.

Another factor that prevents the operation from being as "real-time" an enterprise as firefighters would like is the delivery of information to dispatchers. At the beginning of a fire, dispatchers are generally sent instructions and requests by phone or radio. For extended attacks, such as fires that last for days, California has a system called Incinet, an on-the-scene Unix server that connects to MIRPS to help manage resources.

Finally, the simple need to enter new information such as location of the fire, identification of a fire engine assigned to it and last day off for a crew slows down response.

"We're as real-time as the data entry is if we're swamped," says Nichols, adding that during the wildfires, it sometimes took 15 to 20 minutes to add data such as type of resource requested, availability and destination into the system. If there was a request for an out-of-state resource, data had to be entered twice.

That data entry time could be shortened if California decides to link MIRPS with a similar countrywide system called ROSS, the National Interagency Resource Order and Status System, run by The National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Without a link or merger with that system, Chamlee and other California dispatch chiefs can't order an air tanker – an airplane retrofitted to dump water or fire retardant on fires-- from Oregon directly. To get that air tanker or a similar piece of equipment from out of state, information is pulled from MIRPS and manually typed into ROSS, which scans the country to find it.

California officials now will study whether to integrate MIRPS with ROSS. Both systems track resources and their availability and status in real-time. Neither can yet deliver instant cost calculations, but ROSS uses standard accounting codes that can be downloaded into state systems. ROSS also is built on standard Internet technologies such as Java.. MIRPS, by contrast, is a custom application delivered over a closed state network.

ROSS, in general, is more sophisticated than MIRPS. For instance, it treats the procurement of people and equipment the same way it handles supplies and inventory. Officials can procure all items directly from vendors, through ROSS. They can also receive and process bills. Costs can beascribed to the locale where fires are fought. California firefighters can't do this in MIRPS.

Within the state, however, financials are a less-pressing consideration. Why? Counties in California have a mutual aid system where resources are moved from one to another without charge. The theory is that if a San Francisco engine is given to San Diego in a wildfire, the favor may be returned at a later date.

Next Page: Is ROSS ready for primetime?

This article was originally published on 2003-12-04
Business Editor
Larry formerly served as the East Coast news editor and Finance Editor at CNET News.com. Prior to that, he was editor of Ziff Davis Inter@ctive Investor, which was, according to Barron's, a Top-10 financial site in the late 1990s. Larry has covered the technology and financial services industry since 1995, publishing articles in WallStreetWeek.com, Inter@ctive Week, The New York Times, and Financial Planning magazine. He's a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.
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