To the rescue!

Co-ordinating a host of divergent agencies to fight forest fires and tackle other disasters across the US demands heavy computer...

Co-ordinating a host of divergent agencies to fight forest fires and tackle other disasters across the US demands heavy computer firepower. Marcia McLeod looks at how the system is being put together

Electronic commerce - both retailer-to-consumer and business-to-business - is changing the way organisations operate. But whatever its impact on sourcing, ordering, marketing and selling goods, the Internet's greatest potential lies, perhaps, in its ability to deliver a range of data from any number of internal or external sources to employees, consumers and trading partners alike.

This "electronic library" functionality proves particularly advantageous when the data is required by field workers or other mobile employees. Sales staff and engineers, for example, can receive information such as customer data, details of equipment breakdown, competitor profiles and product descriptions on their laptops, hand-helds or mobile phones via the Internet. But as beneficial as content aggregation and delivery can be, configuring the right system is also one of the hardest things to achieve; the more information sources and the greater the range of data, the harder it is to ensure the right information is delivered to the right person.

The US' National Wildfire Co-ordinating Group (NWCG), which has its headquarters in Boise, Idaho, faced just this kind of problem when trying to develop a system to co-ordinate the control and elimination of forest fires. The group is a consortium of five government agencies - the US Forest Service, Federal Fish and Wildlife Service, National Parks Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs - that share a range of equipment and supplies. This includes fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, which are used for dropping equipment, evacuating people and location of fire sites. These could be as hard to find by land vehicle or on foot as finding a particular pine needle in the country's vast acreage of woodland.

Picks, shovels, tents, radios, polastics (tools used to dig fire lines) and fire engines are all shared, as are people: firefighters and managers who co-ordinate the logistics of ensuring the right equipment and people are in place as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The NWCG assists at other disasters, not just forest fires. The Federal Emergency Management administration often asks for its help in co-ordinating rescue and relief projects following tornados, hurricanes and earthquakes - and equipment can be required at civil events, such as the Winter Olympics in 2002, where law enforcement and traffic control personnel need to be organised, along with relevant equipment, such as helicopters. The group is also asked to assist with initial crises, such as forest fires in Indiana, bug spraying in Africa and flooding in Mexico.

Three years ago, the NWCG realised that it could not co-ordinate rescues from the five agencies, not to mention any available equipment owned by relevant state agencies, without computer power. After inviting tenders from government service agency contractors willing to develop a suitable system, Lockheed Martin won the business. The result was Ross - the resource ordering and status system.

Paul Condit, from Lockheed Martin, and Jon Skeels, from the US Forest Service, led the project team. Computer-based testing has begun, but the first field test won't take place until the end of this year or early 2001.

"Our beta-testing will take place in the Rocky Mountains because they are close to Lockheed's Denver HQ," says Skeels. "This will consist of the Rocky Mountain Geographic Area Co-ordination Center, 11 local despatch units and the National Geographic Co-ordination Center in Boise."

There are 11 geographic area co-ordination centers (GACCs) and 400 local despatch units throughout the US, a large percentage of which are in the western part of the country because of the greater incidence of fires.

The idea behind the system is to offer a central point from which to co-ordinate all human and equipment resources. When an incident is reported to Boise, information such as location, time and severity is recorded. It may take some time to confirm a fire, since the alarm could be initiated by a passer-by who saw smoke, but doesn't know where it is coming from. On close inspection the smoke could be from a logging operation or an approved and monitored burn. Once the incident and its location are defined, all additional information - such as access, road closures, danger to people or animals and so on - is also keyed into the system.

The software will then be able to search a database of all relevant GACCs and local despatch units to see what equipment and personnel are nearest the scene of the incident. The system knows if any resources have been allocated elsewhere, allowing the NWCG to identify which resources are available and which are already in use. If the new incident is more serious than one already in progress, staff or equipment can be re-allocated.

Since the system is Web-enabled, information can be accessed by any authorised person, whatever hardware or operating systems they happen to have and wherever they may be. This allows project managers at the source of an incident to see if any further resources are available, how far away they are and roughly how long it will take for them to reach the scene. It also allows staff to send messages back to headquarters, requesting more resources, bringing it up to date on the status of the incident, notifying it of the need to close roads or other public rights of way, and so on.

The NWCG has invested a substantial sum in Ross. Lockheed Martin's contract is worth about $4m (£2.6m); Skeels believes that, including internal salaries, training, and other costs, the final total will reach $10m. But, with 19,000 fires reported last autumn in southern California alone, anything that can help minimise the danger and the damage is cheap at the price.

Ross brings harmony out of chaos

Data required for the Resource Ordering and Status System (Ross), the National Wildfire Co-ordinating Group's (NWCG) forest fire control system, is held on two IBM AIX servers based on RS/6000 architecture in the Kansas office of the US Department of Agriculture. Each geographic area co-ordination center, despatch unit and state agency uses different networks. The five government agencies, for instance, use a variety of network hardware from MCI, AT&T and Sprint. All of them rely on a TCP/IP framework, however, meaning that any of the 6,000 users nationwide can access Ross through a Web browser.

To achieve the consolidation of data required by the NWCG, Lockheed Martin uses software from Versata, a Californian company specialising in Web content aggregation. Versata allows users to create rules in plain English to underpin the Web application. In the NWCG's case, a rule could be: "Don't display any available fire engine more than 100 miles away," or "State authority must be contacted before equipment despatched".

If any of the parameters for the project change, the system can be updated simply by writing new rules.

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