“We fight the fire with humans on the ground and hand tools primarily. Some squirt water, others swing axes. We are far from a technological solution with a human aspect. Work on that problem at some point, or focus on how you can help the tired, dirty, hungry firefighter who’s been up for 36 hours do his job better. These are the words of a frustrated fire chief, call for experts gathered at the Wildfire Technology Innovation Summit in March 2019, to offer real and effective solutions to its firefighters.
How we fight wildfires today, in 2023, is not fundamentally different from how they were fought at the start of the 20th century. Ground firefighters cut breaks with hand tools or perform controlled burns with drip flares. They coordinate these actions via portable radios with command centers that are often miles away. And communication between the five federal agencies responsible for fighting the wildfires, as well as the myriad state and local entities that may also be involved, is fractured and disorganized.
As more and more Americans move into the wild-urban interfaceAnd climate change increases the incidence and severity of wildfiresthis outdated approach is no longer up to the scale of the problem.
Enter the Infrastructure Investment and Employment Act, which President Biden signed in 2021. It provides $5 billion in funding through 2026 to improve how our country fights wildfires. Much of that money is spent on mitigation efforts, improving firefighter compensation, and restoring burned areas. But at the Department of the Interior (DOI) alone, $72 million is spent upgrading firefighting technology and training firefighters in its use.
Step into the 2024 Ford Bronco
With these upgrades in mind, this 2024 Ford Bronco is one of the very first examples of what this new firefighting technology will look like. Built in collaboration between Ford (which is donating the vehicle to the DOI as part of its Bronco Wild Fund initiative) and Darleya vehicle upfitter serving defense and first aid agencies, it incorporates a host of communications capabilities, as well as the ability to push fire command operations through rough terrain, closer to the front lines.
Starting with a Bone Bronco fitted with Ford’s Sasquatch package, Darley has integrated an integrated satellite, cellular and radio communications system that provides redundant compatibility across an array of government and civilian communications channels. It is powered by a large 3.5 kilowatt-hour battery that charges from the vehicle’s alternator and is operated by prototype incident management software developed by Darley. A drone housed in one of the rear storage areas adds the ability for incident managers to look even further than the vehicle itself can move.
This all probably sounds pretty basic to you and me, and the supercomputers we carry around in our pockets. But it’s probably the best indication of how far behind firefighting technology really is. Currently, incident command is performed on RV sized vehicles using simple radio equipment. These vehicles are too big and unwieldy to go further than paved roads. Thus, field information regarding fuel loads or fire behavior must be radioed by individual firefighters, then collated and redistributed over the radio. And everything from the exact location of fire crews to localized fire behavior can easily be lost or missed during this process.
“We use a tracking system that was developed in the 1940s and was developed primarily to move military equipment during World War II,” a firefighter told the President’s Advisory Council on Science and Technology (PCAST) in March 2022. “Every one of your cell phones sitting on the desk in front of you can order whatever you need and have it delivered to your house tomorrow.”
Here’s how the 2024 Ford Bronco will improve field firefighting
With the 2024 Ford Bronco, incident commanders will be able to get off the sidewalk quickly and easily. Fitted with 35-inch tires and lockable front and rear axle differentials, the vehicle will be able to drive directly to the front lines of an active fire, then use satellite data, first-hand observations and drone imagery to piece together a live picture of current fire behavior, wind directions, fuel loads and crew locations. Darley’s new software will display all of this simply and intuitively on the tablet. And all this information can be distributed through the tangle of stakeholders, agencies and managers present on the ground or remotely. The Bronco is equipped with transmitters to establish an extensive wireless network, giving field workers the ability to receive and transmit data even when cellular networks are not available.
“We could put real-time fire perimeters — and by that I mean a minute of firefighter cellphone collection — in the hands of almost every firefighter in the country right now if we clocked in and signed a few checks,” another firefighter said. Wildfire Technology and Innovation Summit in March 2019.
This integration of multiple data sources into a simple, intuitive interface is similar to the technologies that soldiers and their commanders have used to fight wars over the past decades. Darley tells me they base firefighting equipment on the same capabilities. And just like Ukrainian soldiers use modern communications To better coordinate their efforts, with less risk in the ongoing counteroffensive, American firefighters will soon be able to fight fires more efficiently, more safely, in the near future.
“Our biggest hurdle with all these different technologies is what we call our ‘last mile connection,'” a firefighter told PCAST in March 2022. “How do we get that data started in the field?… The communications infrastructure just isn’t there.
Next steps: getting firefighters the equipment they need
Ford and Darley are building two of these Broncos, with this first example slated for use at New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument later this year. His abilities correspond exactly to recommendations made in a report published by the PCAST in February, which revealed that existing technologies are capable of augmenting wildfire fighting efforts right now, and are desperately needed as fire behavior becomes increasingly dangerous.
“The needs of our wildland firefighters significantly overlap with those of American combatants,” reads the report’s conclusion. “While we have a national commitment to ensuring that our fighters are not sent into harm’s way without the best of American science and technology at their disposal, no similar organizational framework exists to protect and empower wildland firefighters.”
Now, finally, a substantial budget is applied to improve the work of this filthy and hungry fireman. And this solution is going to look a lot like this Bronco.