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Tech Deputy on State Fire Department’s Innovation, IT Work

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has transformed its Information Technology Services unit to include IT practice, telecommunications, and research, development and innovation. The department onboarded its first-ever Deputy Director of Technology Scott Gregory in 2020, is working to change the user experience for staff and members of the public, and has made strides on tech projects involving fire detection and prediction.

A firefighter starting a small fire in a field in a backfiring operation for fighting wildfires.
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Fast Facts

Leadership: Department Director Joe Tyler is a 31-year staffer who was most recently deputy director of fire protection, where he oversaw “statewide fire protection operations and cooperative fire protection.” He started his CAL FIRE career in 1991 at its Shasta Trinity Unit and has served several counties and programs during the intervening years. Chief Information Officer Jay Song has been the department’s technology leader since February 2020 and was previously chief technology officer and chief of information technology at the California Highway Patrol, dual positions he held for six years. Find his Industry Insider — California One-on-One interview here. Scott Gregory is CAL FIRE’s inaugural deputy director of technology, a role he has had since July 2020; he was previously state chief innovation officer at the California Department of Technology.

Budget: With rounding, a little over $4 billion for the 2023-2024 Fiscal Year in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget; from that same budget, $3.9 billion in FY 2022-2023.

Total staff: 7,790, a number that can rise during fire season; 174 of whom work in technology.

What’s in a name? At the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), seven words encapsulate a century-plus of history that now centers on “fire protection and stewardship of over 31 million acres of California’s privately-owned wildlands” as well as providing contract emergency services in 36 counties. CAL FIRE’s origins date to the California Legislature’s 1885 establishment of the State Board of Forestry, whose members saw their powers expanded beyond forestry to peace officer duties before the board was disbanded in 1893 and reapproved in 1905 with a state forester position added. Lawmakers gave the state forester the right to name “local fire wardens,” CAL FIRE Consulting Historian Mark V. Thornton wrote in his history, and a “fire patrol at places and times of fire emergency” — paid for by counties. The federal 1911 “Weeks Law” funded cooperative fire protection between the federal Forest Service and qualifying states; and in 1919, the California Legislature at last appropriated funds for fire protection and suppression. Subsequent years saw state lawmakers and executives approve a state forest nursery, in 1917; buy land for a nursery near Davis; and build the first state-funded fire lookout in 1922. In the late ’20s, Congress expanded federal aid to state forestry programs; and the “Fire Plan of 1940” spelled out that the state would “assume complete jurisdiction and responsibility for suppressing forest and watershed fires” on lands designated by the state. In the early 1940s, Gov. Earl Warren approved forming six CAL FIRE administrative districts and further codifying state-county relations around fire protection.

In more recent years, the department’s tech profile has increased exponentially. As CIO Song told Industry Insider in 2020, the department implemented the state’s first innovative procurement project around wildfire management, activated by Newsom’s January 2019 Executive Order N-04-19 on “Request for Innovative Ideas” (RFI2). Gregory spoke last week with Industry Insider about the department’s ongoing drive to lead through technology. Among the takeaways:

  • CAL FIRE has, during the last three years, restructured how it does technology — which, Gregory said, explains how he was brought on board as deputy director of technology. But now, under technology, are CAL FIRE’s IT practice; telecommunications; and research, development and innovation. Previously, technology was known as Information Technology Services.
    Scott Gregory.
    Scott Gregory
“The creation of my position three years ago, ’cause it didn’t exist prior, was built out to take telecommunications, IT, and then building out this research, development and innovation capability for CAL FIRE,” Gregory said. Staffing numbers rose as a result of the restructuring, which moved the department’s telecommunications from its fire protection organization to technology — and which created the research, development and innovation group following his arrival.
  • Key accomplishments in technology and innovation include, of course, CAL FIRE’s work through RFI2 with vendor Technosylva, which the department said has yielded the ability to generate 24/7 statewide fire behavior predictions and risk metrics every three hours that are four days in advance. This, CAL FIRE told Industry Insider via email, “involves running hundreds of millions of fire spread predictions integrated with advanced weather prediction, landscape fuels, and fuel moisture data.” The resultant risk outputs are generated “at a 30-meter spatial resolution” and summarized to guide decisions by department Operational Units. Statewide risk forecasting has been in production since 2020, the department said.
    “And that’s been a massive game changer for us to be able to model and predict the behavior of wildland fires,” Gregory said. Model runs, he added, which are the generation of a model for fire behavior, span two to eight hours and forecast spread from an ignition point, taking into account factors including weather conditions — with some of it done in the field on the tailgate of a truck.
  • CAL FIRE has built out a modern, secure, resilient software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN), a foundational element, Gregory said, for upcoming innovations. Previously, the department had a more traditional wide-area network.
  • IT projects or initiatives on the horizon this year include a large-scale overhaul of its public-facing website to be more focused on user needs.
  • Another initiative which Gregory kicked off looks at the CAL FIRE digital experience for staff and constituents alike, to gauge where the department’s technology meets them and ensure it’s helpful and enhances what they do.
  • CAL FIRE is underway on strengthening its human capital management — everything from how it recruits and onboards applicants to how it curates that process through its system to meet them where they are.
  • The department is taking aim at paper forms by digitizing them and empowering staff to accomplish tasks that previously might not have been able to be done online, like changing financial settings or making leave requests. Internally, the department plans this year to debut a new way to recruit, hire and onboard staff, making the interactions more platform-agnostic.
  • In 2021, State Senate Bill 109, from Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, created the Office of Wildfire Technology Research and Development within CAL FIRE and under control of its director, plus a nine-member Emergency Wildfire Technology Research and Development Review Advisory Board to review the new office’s work. The office is charged with advising on “procurement of emerging technologies and tools” for wildfire suppression to do a better job of preventing and suppressing wildfires statewide. The office is forming to test bleeding-edge technology, guided by a board made up of private industry and academia with representatives of local government and public safety. The hope, Gregory said, is to identify technologies with potential that haven’t hit the market yet.
  • CAL FIRE’s nurseries reseed state forests with native species but the department also has 10 demonstration forests, the largest of which is Jackson Demonstration State Forest, inland from Fort Bragg. Established in 1949, it covers 48,652 acres, or about 76 square miles. The department has been doing considerable work there with terrestrial sensor networks — in an area so austere as to lack even LTE coverage. It’s technology analogous to that used by the federal Department of Homeland Security’s BioWatch program, and it deploys sensors to monitor the air for the chemical signatures of smoke and fire. Once identified, the signatures can be cataloged and pushed to the cloud for analysis by type and origin. The hope, Gregory said, would be to potentially deploy such technology in fire-prone areas to improve intelligence on wildfires.
Theo Douglas is Assistant Managing Editor of Industry Insider — California.