Relevant information

by Tom Harbour

I still remember the look in her eyes. The fear. The thought that her children were in the path of an unpredictable and insatiable wildfire. And that she would never see them again.

That moment has stayed with me for forty years. It was the Greer Fire, my first time as an incident commander. It was a complex initial and extended attack. Fire behavior was extreme, homes and civilians were at risk, ground and aerial responders were seeking guidance, and we were coordinating with multiple agencies.

When that mother interrupted the inexperienced incident commander (IC) I was, for a moment, everything froze. All I could picture was catastrophe. In the midst of all that chaos, I wondered, had we failed in our most fundamental purpose — to save lives?

Thankfully my training and instincts kicked in after a few seconds. We connected the Sheriff and the mother. Her children were far from danger. Despite the extreme conditions and risk, we stopped that fire after several tense hours at just less than a hundred acres. But that experience haunts me nonetheless, a reminder of the all too terrible force we face in those kinds of conditions and in places that like.

From the moment we deploy to a wildfire, we face a phenomenon that is unknowable, unpredictable, and unrelenting. To compensate for our inability to guess a fire’s unknowable “intentions”, we’ve invested in acquiring information. The more, the better: Beyond situational awareness of the fire, there’s weather, topography, and fuel conditions. More recently, we’ve added social media and UAV feeds to the mix. Our thirst is insatiable. Historically, we’ve worked to satiate that thirst with experience. Experience yields valuable information.

But as I saw in that first command, more information doesn’t mean better information. At some point, it all just becomes noise, a veritable firehose of data that is rendered incomprehensible by its very prodigiousness and chaos. Wheat and chaff are inseparably mixed. Important becomes unrecognizable in the crowd.

Of course, we’ve always felt information overload was a problem. But neuroscience confirms it; a person’s working memory can only keep track of so many things at a time. The fact is, we hit our cognitive limit decades ago. With ever-increasing data from sensors, drones, and other technologies, the problem is only getting worse. If we are not careful, instead of perfecting the decision-making process, we’ll end up distorting it with information overload. Instead of empowering ICs with the most relevant intelligence, we’ll be displacing it with the loudest or most recent.

But what if we could asses, sort, filter, and disseminate the right information?

As we deploy technology in the field, we must be careful about adding new video streams and additional displays and we must do more to leverage the capacity of the human mind. We need to ensure that ICs and agency administrators (AAs) can focus on their core tasks of monitoring, deciding, and acting (or perception, comprehension, and projecting), not wasting valuable time and effort sifting through information. Our focus needs to be on delivering timely, high-quality data that can be used effectively by decision-makers.

So what should these tools do? Well to start, they would organize, fuse, and validate the information. The result: a comprehensive repository of validated, accurately sequenced, critical information that has been analyzed and vetted for best use — a shared set of values. The tools would then distribute the information when and where needed through a user interface that allows the information to be quickly and easily consumed.

But beyond that, they would apply machine learning, computational power, and applied intelligence to the problem. Of course, ensuring intelligence is accurate and timely is paramount. But what if we could also prioritize it before it gets to the IC or Agency Administrator? Determine which stream was even relevant in a particular moment? What if these technologies could do the grunt work first, saving the most taxing decisions for the human in charge? We should find ways to arrange, clean, fuse, and present data and information in a manner that frees the human mind to make the extraordinary decisions it is capable of making.

This isn’t science fiction — much of this technology already exists. We just need to embrace it in the wildland firefighting community. If we do — and work with technology companies to integrate it into our organizations — we can be that much closer to achieving the “holy grail of firefighter safety.” We can reduce exposure, minimize risk, and save more lives and property. And we can focus on what really matters — the people we’re out there to protect and the natural resources we’re out there to conserve.