Last month the Great Lakes Forest Fire Compact (GLFFC) and Minnesota Incident Command System (MNICS) partners met in Duluth for an annual aviation summit.
Great Lakes Forest Fire (GLFFC) partners
Pilots, dispatchers and aviation professionals from multiple agencies, to include the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Divisions of Forestry and Enforcement, United States Forest Service (USFS), Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Minnesota State Patrol/Department of Transportation, the Minnesota Army National Guard, Wisconsin DNR, Michigan DNR – along with partners from Manitoba and Ontario – compared notes before the upcoming wildfire season. The Minnesota DNR Forestry aviation program hosts the annual event. At the 2016 meeting, both the BIA and Minnesota DNR were recognized by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources for assistance last year when air tankers from Ontario were mobilized to fight wildfires in Idaho and Montana.
Afterward, GLFFC partners from Manitoba and Ontario toured the new aviation desk at the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center (MIFC) in Grand Rapids. Tactical firefighting aircraft are dispatched and prioritized statewide for all MNICS agencies from this location. When needed, requests for Canadian aircraft are also initiated and coordinated from the air desk. Last year the DNR responded to 489 requests for aerial firefighting assets, including helicopters and air tankers, on 198 fires in Minnesota.
Aviation desk flight following demonstration
Once cramped and noisy, the revamped space design includes new desks, monitors, computers and electronic maps. In the heat of fire season, at least five dispatchers can now work comfortably and efficiently. Ultimately, during a busy fire season these technology upgrades have the potential to improve efficiency, enhance safety and deliver value.
“These improvements will help our dispatchers especially when we have multiple planes or helicopters in the air on red flag days. When there are numerous fires, we need more tankers in the air and dispatchers on hand,” said Bill Schuster, DNR wildfire aviation supervisor.
Not only is there more room to work, but dispatchers now have better tools. The electronic map and information board is visually bright, interactive and can be seen by all dispatchers in the unit.
A computer aided dispatch (CAD) program was just launched as a pilot project at three dispatch locations: MIFC, the Brainerd Air Tanker Base and Park Rapids Area DNR Forestry office. This system allows dispatchers from multiple locations to view maps and ongoing, real-time fire information about the location of a fire, potential flight hazards, aquatic invasive species and the number of aircraft dispatched to a particular fire.
“This program has a lot of functionality,” said Linda Bruss, air desk team leader. “Previously, we had multiple processes in order to achieve what WildCAD has in one system without duplicating effort.”
(Front) Bill Schuster distributes information to (L-R) Dan Carroll, Bruce Jourdain, Greg Peterson and other aviation workshop participants
Automated Flight Following (AFF) has been incorporated into Minnesota DNR Forestry operations to follow flights and track aircraft location online. This replaces a manual map and voice system. The AFF updates every few minutes with the direction of travel, air speed and location of all aircraft. This information is critical especially if emergencies occur.
Another technological upgrade includes the use of iPads by aviators that detect fires and provide a “size up” of the fire that includes the fire size, fire behavior, access for ground crews and if structures or other values are threatened by the fire. “Air Attack” officers have also found the iPad to be a valuable tool. They fly above fires to direct tactical aircraft operations, ensure airspace safety and coordinate with ground personnel in regard to firefighting tactics. According to Dan Carroll, who emphasizes safety first when using these applications, iPads can dynamically provide critical incident response information. Carroll, a seasoned Air Attack member, said that iPads are currently used in:
- Flight planning: Ability to determine shortest and safest routes and estimate fuel needs.
- Increasing situational awareness: View restricted areas, surface wind speeds, infested lakes, obstacles and different land ownership areas.
- Increasing safety for firefighters on the ground: Air attack crews can provide firefighters on the ground with details on the safest and shortest routes or terrain conditions that might hamper access
- Crew resource management: The pilot and air attack can make decisions together based on real-time information that reduces guess work.
- Air space navigation: Adjust flight routes to avoid hazardous weather, restricted areas or find the shortest distance back to a tanker base.
- Communication: Email or text photos; iPads have a FaceTime app so you can debrief pilots or firefighters at a distance.
- Documentation: Compile photos, mission logs and other information.
- Added efficiency: Provides firefighters and fire managers with enhanced intelligence such as photos/videos of the fire, incoming weather systems, road names, addresses and the distance from fire to nearest structures.
Minnesota DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr
On March 24, Commissioner Tom Landwehr joined Minnesota DNR staff at the GeneralAndrews Wildfire Training Center. He recognized Bill Schuster and his wildfire aviation team for their efforts to improve the program, protect lives, preserve property and protect resources through aerial wildfire suppression.
Minnesota fire season is under way. During the past week, additional helicopters, single engine air tankers (SEAT) and FireBoss aircraft are positioned at tanker bases and helibases throughout Minnesota. In the air or on the ground, the DNR wildfire aviation program has upped its game, ready to fight fires and assist in mutual aid among its aviation partners.