Innovative emergency response equipment and technology were showcased today when San Diego regional leaders gathered at Montgomery Field airport to promote cooperative disaster response efforts among government, university and private sector agencies.

“San Diegans have a history of coming together during emergencies, as do local governments and private business,” said San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders. “That same cooperative spirit is on display here today, along with some of the most innovative fire fighting technology in the nation.”

Supervisor Ron Roberts, chairman of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, used the occasion to unveil an infrared video camera mounted underneath one of CAL FIRE’s OV-10A spotter aircraft.  By picking up the heat-signature of a wildfire, the camera can “see” through smoke and develop a sharp image of the flames, showing hot spots and areas where the fire is spreading or dying down. A streaming video link and remote control allow fire commanders on the ground to point the camera and direct water drops or make strategic decisions in the overall firefighting effort.

“The images from this camera will improve firefighter safety and usher in a new era of real-time tactical information, regardless of the conditions,” said Roberts. “The images also will be one more tool available as part of the Next Generation Incident Command System (NICS) platform that provides emergency responders unprecedented information about what is on the ground and where people and equipment are deployed.”

Roberts also will ask the Board of Supervisors on Sept. 25 to approve $14,400 to cover the cost of moving the hosting of the NICS software from MIT’s Lincoln Labs, where it was developed based on U.S. Military technology, to the San Diego Supercomputer Center at UC San Diego.

San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) contributed $100,000 to the San Diego Regional Fire & Emergency Services Foundation, which then provided a $100,000 grant to the San Diego County Fire Authority to be matched with County funds to cover the $198,000 cost of the airborne video camera system.

“Technology has become the major ‘game-changer’ in how – together – we can prepare for, prevent and detect wildfires before they become infernos,” said Michael R. Niggli, president and chief operating officer for SDG&E.  “We are pleased to help support the county’s efforts to keep our communities safe.”

In addition to the donation for the aircraft infrared video camera, SDG&E has purchased and installed 29 video cameras on top of transmission towers along the Sunrise Powerlink route, using a combination of fiber optics built into the power line and radio links.  Another seven cameras are planned for the section of the line that runs through the Cleveland National Forest.

“Our focus is really on sharpening our overall ‘situational awareness’ – whether that involves gathering data from the 140 weather stations we have placed throughout the county or from video cameras that act as additional ‘eyes in the field’ to monitor potential threats to our system from winds or wildfires,” said Niggli.  “The more information we can gather, the better prepared we can be.”

The solar-powered, high-definition video cameras can distinguish fire-related smoke from fog, haze or vehicle exhaust and automatically alerts SDG&E personnel to a perceived threat.  While the equipment technology and software are proprietary, SDG&E has agreed to share relevant data with local fire agencies.

“The availability of real-time visual data for firefighters from remote locations around the county – and from the air during actual incidents – is a huge benefit in coordinating our fire response,” said CAL FIRE’s San Diego Unit Chief and County Fire Authority Chief Thom Porter.  “This capability pushes us way beyond what we’ve been able to do in the past.”

Gathering the data is important, but making sure it gets into the hands of the first-responders who need it is just as critical.

The County of San Diego, the San Diego County Fire Authority, CAL FIRE, the U.S. Forest Service, SDG&E, UC San Diego and San Diego State University, among others, are part of a collaborative effort to make this data available to approximately 70 fire stations located in the most remote areas of the county.  The effort, called “ASAPnet,” which stands for “Area Situational Awareness for Public Safety Network,” involves installing additional technology to extend the existing mountaintop broadband services of the High-Performance Wireless Research & Education Network (HPWREN), an Applied Network Research project at UCSD.  HPWREN functions as a collaborative Internet-connected cyber-infrastructure for research, education, and public safety activities.

The project supports a wireless data network in San Diego, Riverside, and Imperial counties and includes backbone nodes, typically on mountain tops, to connect often hard-to-reach areas in remote environments. HPWREN supports a vast spectrum of network application requirements and includes permanent sites, as well as those created temporarily and on short notice, such as firefighter Incident Command Posts.

“HPWREN is like having a network of thousands of eyes and ears capturing vital information about the world around us – in real time and in intricate detail,” said Hans-Werner Braun, research scientist with UCSD and HPWREN director.  “Our goal is to make the data useful and usable for public safety and emergency response and accessible in a timely manner.  ASAPnet is a logical extension of this initial concept, which we believe ultimately will result in calamities averted, lives saved and property protected.”

SDG&E is funding the addition of six new camera sites to expand HPWREN remote camera system to about 100 cameras.  The communications network will include a dozen mountaintops and almost 50 base stations to link up to the fire agencies’ remote sites that will enable broadband Internet connectivity to the remote fire stations through the San Diego Supercomputer at UCSD.

The links to the fire stations also will predominantly use a Public Safety radio band through the authority and cooperation of the City and County.  At the fire stations, the broadband link will connect to a router and wireless access point, plus a “Rip & Run” printer for use by station personnel.  Today, these stations rely on VHF radios for communications.  Fire crews have no hard copy of the details of the incident.

“Access to technology from these hard-to-reach areas gives us the advantage of getting more detailed information, more quickly to send crews where they’re needed,” said Chief Porter.  “We estimate it could help to reduce our average response time by a full minute, which is a lot of time when you’re chasing an out-of-control brushfire.”

To date, 20 stations have been wired and another 50 will be connected by the end of the year.

“Another benefit of expanding the network to the remote corners of our county is that the staff in these stations – many of whom are volunteers – now will have easier access to Web-based training to help hone their first-responder skills,” said Roberts.

“I want to express my deep appreciation for the efforts of this unique collaboration of governments, fire agencies, SDG&E, local universities and the scientific community who have taken a ‘big-picture’ approach to fire preparedness and public safety,” said Roberts.  “All of our communities will share the benefits of their foresight, creativity and commitment.”