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New Technology in Fighting Wildfires

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New technology is changing the way wildland firefighters are doing their jobs.

Attacking a fire today is as much about computers and labs, as it is about hoses and shovels.

If firefighters are considered the James Bonds, the Double-Oh Operatives, in the war on wildfires, then the people working at the U.S. Forest Service’s Missoula Technology and Development Center are "Q", the dead-serious scientists who invent the gadgets used to beat the bad guys, or bad fires, as it were.

"This right here is actually a core temperature capsule,” says Joe Domitrovich, exercise physiologist with the Forest Service’s MTDC.   “And this is ingested by a wildland firefighter."

The capsule is swallowed and it sends, via blue-tooth, minute-by-minute body temperature readings.  Domitrovich now uses this and other devices to monitor how firefighters respond to their conditions. 

"Right now we're following a hot shot crew just outside of Fairbanks, Alaska,” says Joe Sol, another exercise physiologist with the USFS.

Sol compiles the data, “So we can go through and get caloric expenditure, then also see how they respond to an activity and how fast they can recover from that activity as well."

The “Joes” can then determine the types of workouts and diet the firefighters need.

Down the hall, Kevin Brown is testing a new type of repelling device, to replace the current one that would simply let a firefighter fall to his death should he lose consciousness during a helicopter drop.

"Whereas this one gives the opportunity to stop,” says Brown. “And gives someone else the opportunity to rescue you or at least get ahold of a handle again."

Bret Butler, a USFS Research Mechanical Engineer, stands in front of a relief map.

"And something happened that caused the winds to push the fire up this way, catching the firefighters working on this fire line,” says Butler. “And it killed ‘m."

Butler uses a 1994 Colorado fire that killed 14 firefighters as his example, and his motivation, to develop “Wind-Ninja.”

“At every drainage,” says Butler. “At every ridge top, almost around every tree, you can see what the wind is going to do."

“There'd be many different applications where that would be extremely useful,” says Kurt Rohrbach, a USFS Smokejumper.  He says on the fire line, information is key.

"I’m glad,” says Rohrbach. “That we're focusing more time and energy on that technology.  I think that's going to help our organization grow and be able to fight fire more effectively and efficiently."

Like the robotic parachute Boyd Burtch, a Smokejumper and Loadmaster Foreman, is testing.  At night, or in heavy smoke, planes can't fly low enough to accurately drop supplies.  But these new GPS units will enable the firefighters to simply shove it out the side or the back of a plane, and then with precision accuracy it will land exactly where they want it to. This would replace the current method of delivery, which sometimes includes hauling-in the packs using horses.

“The horses would definitely take hours to get to some spot that we could fly to within 20 or 30 minutes,” says Burtch.

Moving firefighting from the 19th, to the 21st Century.

"Our work allows us to hopefully make decisions that can help bring them home safe to their families," says Joe Domitrovich.

The ultimate goal for the behind-the-scenes heroes, who help the heros on the front lines, the fire lines, keep the rest of us out of harm's way.

The next piece of technology the U.S. Forest Service is testing -- drones-- that can do re-con on a fire that's too difficult for regular aircraft.

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