The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CAL FIRE, has a very difficult job. Its firefighters are tasked with protecting 31 million acres of privately owned land in the state. Moreover, CAL FIRE provides emergency response services in 36 of the state's 58 counties. The state's resources (which include firefighters, fire engines and aircraft) respond to more than 5,600 wildland fires each year. Those fires burn more than 172,000 acres annually. Facing drought conditions every summer — along with state budget issues that have reduced the number of staffed fire lookout towers — CAL FIRE needed to devise a system to augment their current capabilities.

The solution came with the help of Vicom Wireless, a wireless consultancy and solutions vendor located in El Dorado Hills, Calif. The company designed and built what is known today as the Fire Safe system.

It's a simple formula really: the more quickly a fire can be detected, evaluated and extinguished, the less it costs, not only from a monetary perspective but also from a safety perspective. Unnecessarily placing firefighting personnel and even aircraft pilots and crews in danger can carry a huge price, so agencies want to know as much as possible about a fire's location, size and direction of travel, along with the availability of nearby access roads. Historically, forestry agencies have relied on 911 callers, staffed lookout towers and airborne aircraft to identify forest fires and assist dispatchers in determining an appropriate response.

The information provided by emergency callers often is inaccurate, and recent budget cutbacks have left CAL FIRE with fewer manned lookout towers. Since it can cost tens of thousands of dollars per flight to dispatch surveillance aircraft, the agency wanted to develop a better surveillance alternative.

Funded by a state of California grant plus private and local fire department donations, the CAL FIRE unit located in El Dorado County now uses a series of high-definition video cameras mounted on unmanned forest fire lookout towers. These cameras provide dispatchers with real-time data about a fire without the need for airplane reconnaissance. Two years in development, the system relies on a series of point-to-point microwave backhaul systems to connect the cameras from their remote forest locations to the unit's emergency command center (ECC) in Camino, Calif.

The Fire Safe system is the largest in use for forestry protection in the United States to date. Vicom Wireless chose Pelco Esprit HD video cameras featuring 35X zoom lenses with full remote pan/tilt/zoom controls, and ONSSI Ocularis series software for the video server that manages the incoming images. To help minimize maintenance issues, the cameras also include pressurized housings and built-in heaters to protect them from the elements at elevations of 6,000 feet and above. Currently, the cameras are mounted on forest fire lookout towers located atop Big Hill, Pine Hill, and Mount Danaher in El Dorado County.

At the fire command center, the camera feeds are displayed on a 52-inch Sony LCD HD monitor. The Ocularis software allows dispatchers to use a wireless mouse to control each camera remotely, and they can choose to view the images simultaneously (as a set of tiles on the screen) or one at a time. The software also allows images to be stored for up to six months for later viewing if needed.

The video display allows dispatchers to triangulate the azimuth and elevation figures from two different cameras to show a fire's longitude and latitude, as well as the number of degrees above or below the horizon. Dispatchers can then zoom in and view a fire from different angles to establish its size and direction of travel. By viewing this real-time information on the workstation, the fire team can quickly determine how best to attack the fire.

To link the video feeds from the cameras to the ECC, Vicom Wireless chose Exalt Communications' EX-5r series microwave backhaul systems because of their high reliability under the extreme weather conditions often found on mountain peaks. In addition, they were among the only backhaul systems with a built-in spectrum analyzer, which is critical in determining the presence of other radio sources and minimizing the chance of interference from other users. Having the analyzer built in saves the cost of buying a standalone product.

One of the problems with transmitting video traffic is that it is highly asymmetrical — the "upstream" traffic from the video cameras to the command center requires far more bandwidth than the pan/tilt/zoom controls going from the command center to the cameras. As a result, it was important to use microwave backhaul systems that have throughput symmetry control, which allows users to adjust the relative amount of uplink and downlink capacity. The Exalt systems in the CAL FIRE network are configured so that 80% of the aggregate capacity is allocated to traffic going from the cameras to the ECC.

These microwave backhaul links have been completely reliable in all weather conditions, prompting CAL FIRE to plan for further expansion in 2010 and beyond. Additional cameras and microwave links will be deployed atop Heavenly Valley and Mount Zion this year, and the agency has an overall goal of eventually deploying more cameras in Amador and El Dorado counties.

Power is another issue that affects remote tower locations, but the system uses 24-volt AC power over Ethernet, so power is efficiently delivered over the communications network.

Since its deployment, the Fire Safe system has worked without interruption and has become an important tool in helping CAL FIRE suppress wildland fires. As this surveillance application continues to prove itself, it will serve as a model for other fire protection districts across the nation, many of which face similar fiscal challenges. By using video cameras and microwave backhaul systems, CAL FIRE and the U.S. Forest Service are showing that it's possible to deliver outstanding fire protection even when manpower budgets are constrained.

Charles Rubin is a freelance writer based in Northern California. This article was contributed by Exalt Communications.

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