Wildland Fire and FirstNet: What’s In It For Us?

Simply put, FirstNet will be a game changer for wildland fire. It will allow us to make huge improvements in firefighter health and safety and it will provide incident managers with significantly enhanced access to both incident details, as well as the vital big picture.

By Bill Metcalf, Fire Chief, Retired


Having spent most of my adult life in the fire service and the last half of it in the Western US, I’ve had the opportunity to experience a lot when it comes to wildland fire. Having also been involved with FirstNet since it’s early days through my activities with the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), I’ve had the opportunity to think about the intersection between wildland fire and FirstNet. What does FirstNet have to offer the wildland fire community? Why should a wildland firefighter or member of the incident leadership team care?

FirstNet is the official name for something called the Public Safety Broadband Network (PSBN). This is a system that is being rolled out across the country as you read this. Think of it this way: consider all the computing power that you carry in your pocket on your smartphone, your tablet, or your laptop. We can, literally, tap into the world with a few swipes and clicks. All it takes is a nearby cell tower or wifi connection. What if we could harness all that power and put it to work in real time on wildfires?

Think about all the tools that you currently have on your device that help you fight fire. For example, real-time weather conditions and radar (including lightning strikes); sophisticated maps with a choice between streets, topographic, or satellite view; video streaming that allows you to send or receive a live view of what you are seeing right now, right in front of you; automatic location services that allow you to see where you are on a real map…. or let others see you if they need to find you. Unfortunately, we often can’t put these tools to use in the wildland fire environment because of lack of network coverage or (in the case of WUI fires in dense suburbs) network congestion. What if we could solve those issues?

FirstNet and its corporate partner AT&T are beginning to create a broadband network that will allow us to actually put to use the tools that we already have. First, as the network is built out over the next 5 years and beyond there will significant improvements in network coverage – it’s required by the law that created FirstNet. In many places where we fight fire today without any cell coverage, we will have all we need in the not-too-distant future. Since a lot of the areas where we fight wildland fires are simply too remote for a traditional approach to cellular network deployment, plans also provide for a significant increase in what are called ‘deployables’ – that is, transportable mobile cell towers – as well as development and implementation of a system for rapidly moving them where needed. Many of us have seen early examples of these devices around basecamps in recent years. There may also be a component of satellite and/or drone communication links as the system and technology advances. Bottom line, our current experience with network coverage is going to get significantly better.

The second limiting factor, especially in the densely populated WUI areas (like San Diego where I spent the later part of my career) or in remote areas where the bandwidth pipeline is small, is network congestion. That is, we can’t effectively use our mobile devices because everybody and their sister is live-streaming pictures of the fire or Snapchatting, or Facebook posting, and there simply isn’t enough bandwidth – a big enough pipeline – to carry all the data. FirstNet will deal with this issue in two ways. First, FirstNet is primarily being built around 20 megahertz of frequency spectrum (Band 14) that is dedicated to public safety use. As Band 14 capabilities are built out over the next few years, it won’t matter what the public is doing, if your device is Band 14 capable, you can do your own thing – completely separated from the general public. In addition, one of the big things that the corporate partner AT&T is bringing to the system is immediate priority and preemption on their existing commercial (public) network. If you’re in a state that “opts-in” to FirstNet and your agency is a subscriber to FirstNet, your current AT & T device will be given priority (that means that you go to the front of the line on congested cell sites) and by the end of the year you will have preemption (the ability to boot someone off a cell site to make room for your traffic).

So that’s today. FirstNet will offer substantial improvements in coverage in network congestion issues, allowing us to use the tools we already have in our toolbox. Even more exciting is what FirstNet is doing and will be doing to foster the development of new apps and tools to take advantage of our enhanced broadband access. For example, what about real-time maps that have up-to-the-minute information on fire perimeter and movement, with overlays that show weather, location of ground resources, safety zones, escape routes? What about a strike team leader or division supervisor being able to see in real time their area of responsibility as they plan for resource deployment. After resources are assigned, they can then see the actual location of those resources, with fire/weather updates as conditions change during the shift? Would it be helpful to be able to monitor, real-time, the physical health of wildland firefighters by using wearable devices that monitor heart rate, breathing, temperature? What if incident maps could be updated real time, without having to wait until the end of shift when field observers and other team members return to camp and update the Situation Unit? And those are just a few of the doors that would be opened to us with improved access to broadband bandwidth.

Finally, a quick word about voice communications. Especially at the beginning, FirstNet is not a voice communication system that will replace our mobile radios. Although there are places around the world that use LTE systems for emergency voice communications, that’s not the initial focus. This is primarily a data system that will allow us to better use the data tools we have today and to develop new tools for us to use tomorrow. Obviously, if your mobile device is a cell phone, you will be able to use its voice capabilities as you do today, but it won’t have all the voice capabilities that we need at the outset (for example, the ability to go direct – cell phone to cell phone – without going through the network when we don’t have coverage).

Simply put, FirstNet will be a game changer for wildland fire. It will allow us to make huge improvements in firefighter health and safety and it will provide incident managers with significantly enhanced access to both incident details, as well as the vital big picture. This system is going to help all of us, not just those in the big cities. Wildland firefighters and leaders need to support their states opting in to FirstNet and actively participate as the system is rolled out. Just imagine what we could with this exciting new tool.

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Bill Metcalf recently retired as the Fire Chief for the North County Fire Protection District in San Diego, California. He served as the President of the International Association of Fire Chiefs in 2013-2014 and was an active member of the California FIRESCOPE Board of Directors up until his retirement.


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