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Wildfires can be deadly and are one of the most dangerous challenges faced by fire service personnel. While these disasters were once limited to a specific season in a few trouble spots around the country, times have changed significantly, and now large portions of the country are impacted. In many areas, wildfires no longer have a season – they’re a year-round threat. Early detection – before a wildfire can spread – is critical and can mean a dramatic difference in the level of resources needed and the danger posed to firefighters. Artificial intelligence (AI) and 5G are bringing innovation to the fight.
In Boulder County, Colorado, an established and award-winning technology from a company called Pano is leveraging ultra-high-definition cameras and AI to provide early detection of wildfires before they become catastrophic events. The cameras, which are mounted on towers at high elevation locations, have 30x optical zoom capability and continually scan 360 degrees. Using AI, the incoming video is constantly searching the landscape for the first wisps of smoke. The technology can then identify the specific location or bearing, and alerts first responders within minutes of the first sighting of smoke. Boulder County Fire Manager Seth McKinney says the technology proved itself soon after the region began a three-camera pilot when an alert was triggered shortly after a landscape worker inadvertently started a small fire. Although the worker quickly called 911, the fact that Pano had picked up on the smoke from the small fire demonstrated the system’s capabilities.
“About two months later, we had the Sanitas Fire,” McKinney said. “It started as a structure fire during red flag conditions with high winds – the [Pano] system keyed up on the smoke. As we were escalating our response, we were able to pull up images and it really helped in the coordination of resources.”
McKinney said the value extends beyond early detection of fires. “It’s not always about escalating a response,” he explained. “It can also mean that we don’t have a large number of personnel in an emergency response mode when it isn’t necessary. We are definitely detecting fires sooner, but there’s also a lot of value in the de-escalation. More than anything, it’s been able to help us recognize false alarms. Light patches of fog that come up after a rain storm - those often get called in as smoke,” McKinney said.
“When there’s an alert, I receive a text message and an email. It comes with a link to the web site and shows me exactly what the camera is detecting,” McKinney explained. “It’s a tool at my fingertips and I can share it easily. With additional training and partners, we can really fine tune our responses. It’s brought a level of situational awareness that you have in the field and made it available to managers, especially when combined with the radio traffic from dispatch.”
Kat Williams is the director of government development for Pano and she spent more than 7 years as a wildland firefighter, including time as a member of the Idaho Panhandle Hotshots. She knows firsthand the importance of time when it comes to wildfire detection. “The earlier we can identify a fire and provide solid intel, the [firefighting] efforts are more effective, and the firefighters are safer,” Williams said.
According to Williams, Pano does much more than identify a fire in its early stages. “We can provide a lat-long and this is incredibly important,” she said. “The specific location can be viewed on a phone or tablet and satellite photos can be overlayed. This helps to identify resources like water, roads, and old burn scars (retreat area for firefighters). This is the type of intel that is so valuable when you’re enroute to a fire.”
For Pano to provide early wildfire detection, huge amounts of information must be transmitted and quickly analyzed. Many of the Pano locations are wireless and 5G has proven particularly beneficial by providing better speed, increased capacity and helping to reduce latency. “Connectivity with 5G creates a better AI performance because we can analyze more frames and there is higher resolution per frame,” Williams explained. "And data-heavy features like looking at high-resolution video in near-real-time allows firefighters to see fire activity clearly from miles away.”
The State of Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recently entered into a two-year pilot that will deploy 21 two-camera Pano stations. In a press release regarding the pilot, DNR Commissioner Hilary Franz noted that the Pano system will mean communities will have more time to act if evacuations are required. “When a fire is bearing down on your property, you don’t care how or when it started, you need to know that help is on the way right now,” Franz said.
All of the Pano stations in Washington will be operating on 5G provided by T-Mobile, which has the nation’s largest 5G network. Arvind Satyam, who is the chief operating officer for Pano, says the company is working closely with T-Mobile to leverage 5G connectivity. “We have a partnership with T-Mobile and 5G is so important because it allows us to capture higher resolution imagery which yields better results. Reliability, trust, resiliency – these are the things we think about when we think about working with T-Mobile,” Satyam said.
An IPSA Webinar, Targeting Wildfires with Technology, is scheduled for October 5, 2023, at 10 am Pacific/1 pm Eastern. Speakers will include Kat Williams and Seth McKinney (both quoted in this article) as well as Nicole Hudnet, T-Mobile Industry Segment Advisor, Emergency Response Team. Registration is open now and there is no cost to attend this IPSA webinar.
For more information: t-mobile.com/publicsafety and pano.ai