Lookout Tower Modernization: Improving Situational Awareness

It’s early afternoon on a hot day in July when the local fire manager sees new smoke from the live video feed on his computer monitor. Even though he is 500 miles away, he is able to toggle the keys on his keyboard to pan and zoom his remote camera, giving him a clear view of the early stages of a new lightning strike wildfire only a quarter mile from the National Forest.

From that moment, things happen very quickly. He calls the dispatch center and mobilizes the incident response team. Within an hour, the initial attack fire crew are arriving at the site and confirming the initial fire observations and resource needs with dispatch.

“What do we need to put it out?”

The crew leader advises they need a helicopter with bucket and foam, plus five more firefighters. The fire manager advises dispatch, additional resources are mobilized, and by 18:00 the fire is fully contained and under control.

“No other resources are required on the incident at this time.”

This narrative approximates the real-life events that unfolded when an FTS customer was trialing a new installation of the FTS Remote Automated Observation System (RAOS). Adding a RAOS system to the rooftop of an unstaffed lookout tower, the fire manager was able to detect a new wildfire at the inception stages, issue a rapid response and avoid an initial attack failure that could have potentially resulted in a much larger, more expensive blaze that would have threatened a neighboring community.

Without the RAOS installation, things could have turned out much differently.

“Without the RAOS images, it could have taken up to two days before anyone saw the fire,” says Tyler Smith of FTS. “The nearest town was five miles away, and the fire was in a remote valley and basically invisible.”

The RAOS system in this case incorporated a high definition pan/tilt/zoom (PTZ) video camera. Even though the lookout tower was seven miles from the incident, and not staffed, it proved to be the deciding factor in the early detection of the wildfire, thanks to the RAOS installation on its roof.

For Smith, these fixed installations of the RAOS on existing infrastructure represents the next generation of fire lookout towers. The key benefit: making better decisions faster.

“When you consider how lookout towers are used today, you realize that things haven’t changed much since their inception,” says Smith. “You still need to have someone staffing them, and apart from some new equipment like data loggers, they don’t use anything remarkable for fire detection.

“On top of that, hundreds of old lookout towers across North America aren’t staffed at all. With the right equipment, towers situated in remote areas could be returned to service and used to provide critical real-time information to fire managers.”

Lookout towers have existed across the United States and Canada since the early 1900s. At the height of their use, the United States Forest Service alone operated more than 5,000 towers. With changing attitudes and budgets, along with the introduction of reconnaissance flights, satellite imagery and the general public reporting wildfires they have steadily seen less use and many have been outright forgotten.

Many of these towers can be made valuable and relevant again with the addition of FTS technology that features high definition camera systems and high bandwidth data transmission.

In the United States and Canada, the Remote Automated Weather Station (RAWS) from FTS has become essential fire weather equipment over the past 35 years. In the United States, the Fixed Fire RAWS forms the backbone of the National Fire Danger Rating System, supplying scientific grade data to Fire Management Operations at numerous State and Federal Agencies.

The new RAOS remote camera system from FTS now makes it possible for fire management staff to observe fire activity directly. The RAOS is available as both a portable and a fixed system, and the two designs address different aspects of fire management operations.

The fixed RAOS can either be installed on existing infrastructure such as a watchtower or it can be set up at new sites in remote locations on an FTS tri-leg tower. Meanwhile, the portable RAOS can be deployed rapidly anywhere on an as-needed basis during active firefighting response or prescribed burn, transmitting imagery back to fire management personnel using a cellular or satellite service.

“Traditional fire spotting and response is all very manual and time consuming,” says Smith, “but fire managers need information quickly so they can decide whether to mobilize ground firefighters, mobilize heavy equipment, call for aerial suppression support, and everything else they need to get the job done. They basically need eyes on the ground, and the RAOS gives them those eyes.

“It’s still important to have people on the ground, but sometimes it takes time for the guys to get there and decide on an action plan — some of these locations are incredibly remote and inaccessible, and with every minute that’s lost, the fire is getting bigger. It really helps to see the wildfire in advance, size it up and decide what resources might be needed, before incident responders are even dispatched.” 

In recent years, the incidence of wildfire has increased dramatically and so has the magnitude and cost of damage. Fourteen of the 20 most destructive wildfires in California state history have occurred since 2007, and California has 78 more annual “fire days” now than it had 50 years ago. Following the 2018 wildfire season—the worst on record—a state commissioned report makes the disturbing projection that under current emissions trends, the average burn area in California will increase 77 percent by the end of the century.

The 2016 Fort McMurray Fire and the 2011 Wallow Fire are especially sobering examples of the destruction that can be wrought by wildfires when they are not contained early.

The 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire burned an area of 1,500,000 acres, forced the evacuation of 88,000 people, and destroyed approximately 2,400 homes and buildings. The estimated damage was approximately $9.9 billion Canadian dollars. It was the costliest disaster in Canadian history.

In the past decade, dozens of other wildfires across the United States and Canada have caused similarly stunning damages and costs. These include the 2017 California wildfires that damaged or destroyed more than 10,000 structures while burning over a million acres.

The RAOS from FTS can provide a frontline defense in helping to reduce the impact of these types of disasters. With its rugged design, rapid setup, and flexible configuration, as well as its array of camera options including thermal and infrared video for the portable option, the RAOS can offer powerful surveillance capabilities in remote areas both day and night, providing full situational awareness and a common operating picture amongst wildfire professionals.

“FTS put together the entire RAOS system to give people making the decisions critical real-time information when they need it,” says Smith. “The RAOS basically gives them the information as if they were actually there with eyes on the ground.”

FTS is always happy to answer any questions you might have about our technology solutions and your fire management programs. Learn more about the FTS RAOS or contact us—we would love to hear from you.

© 2019 Forest Technology Systems Ltd.

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