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Public-Private Collaboration Could Yield Wildfire Detection Tech for State

Officials at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and other entities are working with the Science and Technology Directorate of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and technology companies on doing more to spot wildfires.

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State, federal and private-sector entities have been working together for nearly two years on an innovation project that is expected to deliver some assistance to authorities in time for the next fire season.

In interviews with Techwire, officials with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) and the Science and Technology Directorate of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) confirmed the partnership and described an ongoing public-private engagement that should continue for more than a year. Among the takeaways:

  • The work began in late 2019 via its Smart City Internet of Things Innovation (SCITI) Labs program, a DHS official told Techwire, with a quest to hone in on the applied science of detecting wildfires by convening innovative thinkers from labs, academia and industry. A stakeholder working group on the effort includes CAL FIRE, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, The Nature Conservancy and the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the United States Fire Administration. Officials identified and began work with four private-sector companies to supply technology with sensing capabilities for everything from air quality to sensor measuring: Ai4 Technologies Inc. of San Francisco; Breeze Technologies UG of Hamburg, Germany; N5 Sensors Inc. of Rockville, Md.; and Valor Fire Safety of Londonderry, N.H.
  • The public- and private-sector partners worked together virtually last year as the COVID-19 pandemic spiked. Then, last month, they convened in person in Red Bluff for a sensor demonstration by the four technology companies during a 1,000-acre CAL FIRE controlled burn at a two-day training event. The fire enabled the four companies to each test eight sensors in multiple locations and let stakeholders look more closely at refining algorithms, detection techniques, alerts and smart alerts; and addressing issues like false positives. CAL FIRE Fire Protection Operations staff members told Techwire via email the department “provided the opportunity to test and evaluate the technology at one of our current and ongoing vegetation management treatment areas,” and “worked with DHS personnel to coordinate their deployment of wildfire detection prototypes around a previously scheduled and planned vegetation management burn.”
    “Our interest lies within the science of the technology. Early detection was one the problem statements for the RFI-2 procurement, however this project is unrelated to RFI-2,” CAL FIRE told Techwire, referring to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s request for innovative ideas approach to flexible procurement. CAL FIRE uses the California National Guard for “early detection and ongoing assessment,” the staffers said, but has been “approached by multiple ground-based sensor companies to assist in determining the value of the technology.” A CAL FIRE unit, the staffers said, has entered into an agreement for a proof of concept of examples of this technology, slated to occur in the Bay Area during the current fire season.
  • Officials debriefed the stakeholder group during the week of July 12 and obtained additional challenges from members for the project, which is now moving into its third phase with more than a year remaining. A decision has been made on “down-selecting” from the four technology providers to two, although an announcement has not yet been made. From there, work will turn for about six months to continued refinement of algorithms and detection methodologies and techniques. And from there the focus is expected to shift to hardening for field deployment. The hope for the project is to be ready to work with the remaining private-sector partners by early next year to deploy 100 to 200 sensors throughout California ahead of the fire season. In order for that to happen, officials will have to address issues including types of data input and power supply the sensors will need.
  • One aspiration for the project is that it could potentially educate other state and private-sector entities on related areas including algorithmic development, edge computing, and data integration into command center operations and dashboards.
Theo Douglas is Assistant Managing Editor of Industry Insider — California.