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Keeping Track of Danger, on the Fly

New mapping system allows firefighters to predict the path of blazes from the air.

October 25, 2005|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Grounded by injuries from a helicopter crash, Los Angeles Fire Department pilot Steven Robinson let his imagination soar.

As a result, Los Angeles is installing what is expected to be the country's most sophisticated firefighting and disaster-assessment system.

The desk-bound helicopter pilot has devised a computer-driven mapping process that can predict where a brush fire is likely to burn -- and how fast it will get there. It can also tell how many people are in the path of a potentially dangerous chemical cloud or might be trapped in rubble after an earthquake.

Robinson's fire forecaster was put to its first test last month during the 24,175-acre brush fire that burned from Chatsworth to Thousand Oaks.

Fire officials say the system accurately predicted the fire's path and burn rate, allowing authorities to evacuate thousands from residential neighborhoods on Sept. 28. A day later, the forecasting system helped firefighters stop the blaze before it could cross a major freeway and burn toward Malibu and the ocean, as previous wildfires have done.

The system's design is the result of an accident, one that killed four passengers in Robinson's helicopter and nearly killed him too.

Robinson, who became a city firefighter in 1986, won a flying position with the air unit nine years later after studying piloting on his own. Then, on March 23, 1998, as Robinson was flying a Los Angeles Fire Department helicopter, rushing a young traffic-accident victim from Sun Valley to Childrens Hospital, the craft's tail rotor broke off as it neared the Los Feliz area.

The accident sent the helicopter spiraling into Griffith Park, killing 11-year-old Norma Vides and Fire Department paramedics Michael A. Butler and Eric F. Reiner and helicopter crewman Michael D. McComb. Robinson and another crew member, Dennis J. Silgen, were severely injured.

Robinson returned to work briefly as a pilot, but his head injuries forced officials to suspend the medical clearance needed for him to fly.

He was determined, however, to remain with the aerial team.

"I started looking around for ways to stay an active member of Air Operations. That's what spawned this whole project," said Robinson, 40, who lives in Thousand Oaks with his wife, Jennifer, and sons Brandon, 8, and Kyle, 4.

Robinson set out to teach himself about computers, digital mapping, high-definition cameras, thermal video imagery and software integration.

He discovered that by combining bits and pieces of existing technologies, he could assemble a customized disaster-planning system that is easy enough -- and rugged enough -- for emergency crews to use on the fly.

It is designed to use gyroscope-mounted high-definition cameras that produce rock-steady video and thermal-imaging pictures despite the shaking that takes place in helicopters. The resulting imagery is fed into a computer mounted inside the helicopter cabin that records the size of a wildfire.

That information can then be beamed from the helicopter to the fire command post and the ground. There, another computer creates maps that can show the precise acreage burned, the ruggedness of the area's terrain, the exact location of nearby homes and the number of people who live there.

Eventually synthesizing information about terrain with data on wind, temperature, humidity and the flammable chaparral "fuel load," the computer can produce a map that forecasts where flames will be in one, two or three hours.

Full-color copies of the maps can be printed on the spot or electronically relayed to firefighters at distant flanks of the blaze.

The mapping blends old and new technology.

Robinson uses the same topographic maps showing hillside and mountain terrain that the U.S. Geological Survey has produced since 1879. But he also receives Department of Homeland Security satellite photos.

Those highly detailed pictures have close-up views of neighborhoods in the fire zone. They show houses and buildings that might not be visible from the street. They also illustrate the density of vegetation and the width of hillside roads that fire trucks must share with evacuating residents.

Robinson has data from the 2000 census that allows his maps to show how many residents live in the fire's path. With a few keystrokes, he can make hospitals or schools near the fire zone also appear on the map.

A high-definition TV camera can transmit video of the disaster scene to the ground as well as into the computer. A companion thermal imaging camera can "see" through smoke to focus on embers and hot spots that have escaped the fire line and threaten to expand the blaze.

Those hot spots can be pinpointed on a map that provides coordinates for water-dropping aircraft.

Officials say the mapmaking computers and servers were donated to the Fire Department by Hewlett Packard. Software was contributed by Redlands-based Environmental Systems Research Institute.

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