Apps designed to provide firefighters with realtime information could help save lives.
Apps designed to provide firefighters with realtime information could help save lives. Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to wildfires, the slightest change in weather can have disastrous consequences for firefighters in the field. Developing app technology for smartphones and tablets could provide forces with real-time information about wind shifts and fire patterns.

Last year the United States Forest Service tested apps compatible with iPads and smartphones. Laura Hill, information technology strategic planner for the Forest Service, told the New York Times the results “exceeded expectations.” This summer a similar pilot program has been launched to test apps on Android devices.

The apps, a mix of custom-designed and off-the-shelf software, are tailored to allow forces to accurately track the scale and changes of wildfires through updates such as infrared satellite images and maps. Hill also says they are looking to explore cloud services in order to make Forest Service computer databases more readily available.

The biggest obstacle? The lack of sufficient internet and cell service in these areas. One solution in discussion is the development of mesh networks. This would allow firefighters to keep sharing information even if one of them lost his or her internet connection. Similar technology has been employed by the Homeland Security Department and the Federal Emergency Management agency.

With climate change, the annual extent of forest fire burns are expected to rise by 50 percent or more by 2050. After 19 firefighters died in a recent Arizona wildfire, officials are highlighting the apps’ lifesaving potential. There are other high-tech methods for controlling wildfires such as using drones to conduct surveillance, but they’re expensive and often face regulatory hurdles.