Can Technology Outpace a California Wildfire?

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, Ernylee Chamlee 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. Californias resource management application doesnt connect with the states financial systems. Bottom line: The dollar-and-cents impact of fighting fires comes about every 24 hours. When Californias 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. 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 Californias 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 CDFs 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.

Heres how MIRPS works. When a fire breaks out, officials determine what they need. If its 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.

Next Page: Challenges to being fully "real time."