Hello, my name is IRWIN.

Sunrise at a fire camp in southern Idaho. The latest release of IRWIN will dramticaly improve the tracking of people and equipment dispatched to wildfires. (DOI/Neal Herbert)


Not everyone who works in wildland fire has heard of IRWIN. With the latest release, that should change. IRWIN is an interagency effort led by Jaymee Fojtik (Project Manager, Department of the Interior), Chuck Wamack (Business Lead, Department of the Interior), and Kara Stringer (Business Lead, USDA Forest Service). Neal Herbert spoke with Jaymee and Chuck to learn more about IRWIN’s pivotal role in the wildland fire community and how it’s making all our lives easier.

Abbreviation cheat sheet:

IRWIN = Integrated Reporting of Wildland Fire Information
CW = Chuck Wamack
JF = Jaymee Fojtik
IROC: Interagency Resource Ordering Capability

What is IRWIN?

CW: IRWIN is software that allows data to be shared between applications so that there’s a single data source for every incident. Hundreds of different online systems play a role in managing incidents like wildfires. Since most were developed at different times for different federal or state agencies, they don’t necessarily talk to one another. IRWIN allows that to happen.

JF: IRWIN reduces redundant data entry, speeds up access to information, and provides more accurate data. IRWIN establishes authoritative data sources for everything that flows through the system. When an authoritative data source makes an update, that update is available to other systems connected to IRWIN in near real-time. When asked what they like most about IRWIN, dispatchers say that what used to take them 10 minutes now takes them 10 seconds.

Can you give a real-world example of how IRWIN increases data speed and accuracy?

CW: Say a dispatcher gets a report of a new fire. They need to create a new incident in a computer-aided dispatch system. Next, they need a fire code. Before we launched IRWIN, the dispatcher had to login to a separate system and enter a bunch of data about the fire – a name, a unique ID, a location – in order to get the fire code. With the fire code in hand, they’d login to their dispatch software, re-enter a lot of the same information, because that system also wants to have a name, location, etc., and provide the fire code.

Today they go directly to the dispatch software and just enter the incident data from the caller. Then they push a button that automatically requests a fire code. At the same time, IRWIN sends the required incident data from the dispatch software to the other system. So IRWIN took a username and password out of the equation. IRWIN took entering fire data a second time into a second system out of the equation. Instead the dispatcher receives a fire code instantly just by clicking a button.

JF: One of the most frequently updated data elements is fire acres. Fires grow over time, and a lot of people need to know how big a fire has become. With IRWIN, fire acres can be updated in one system, then that information goes to other connected systems. Without IRWIN, you could have several systems reporting different sizes for the same fire until people took the time to update them.

How many systems access data from IRWIN?

JF: We have over 250 services connected from around the world.

With so many systems connecting to IRWIN, how do you decide which systems to integrate?

CW: An agency or institution like Cal Fire will request a discovery session where we discuss their business needs and look at how IRWIN can help them. Some integrations want to use IRWIN to exchange data with other systems. Others just want access to the data IRWIN can provide. A big part of our workflow is communication. Before we make any updates, we have to understand how they might affect current integrations, especially if we’re talking about creating new fields or adjusting authoritative data sources. IRWIN is a small team with three vendors under contract getting all this accomplished, so cooperation is really important.

JF: IRWIN is truly a collaborative effort. We never tell anybody what they need to do. We work with them through the discovery process. Every year Chuck and Kara put together a business plan for the upcoming release to get consensus with all the teams, business leads, project managers, and users who are engaged with the process. Then we have integration testing events where everyone comes together in one location to test their applications for readiness to deploy the next version. Everybody's exchanging code, everybody's helping each other, bouncing ideas of each other: it’s a great environment.

What’s the origin story of IRWIN?

JF: Chuck's the grandfather, so he can tell the story.

CW: When I was Assistant Center Manager at the National Interagency Coordination Center (the NICC), a wise man named John Noneman would come and drink my coffee every Monday morning. We had this long running conversation about integrating systems and making life easier for dispatchers. We eventually landed on the name IRWIN. John's wife had an IRWIN banner made and we hung it up in our space. One summer Department IT leadership was touring western fire camps and dispatch centers and they stopped by our office. Someone asked about the banner. We explained our concept and that spawned a series of conversations with a growing number of people. Eventually money started flowing through the Office of Wildland Fire and now here you are asking us that question.

So if I want to get something funded…

CW: A banner helps. I still have that banner in my office. IRWIN grew out of good conversations. Kudos to John Noneman. Coffee's cheap when you get this as the end product.

You just released a new version of IRWIN: what did that update include?

JF: With the version that just went live, version 6.0, we’re starting to share information about resources, like what people and equipment are working on a fire. For the very first time we’re integrating resources between dispatch, a brand-new resource ordering system called IROC, and the two systems that track firefighter qualifications for federal and state governments.

Do the IRWIN updates only matter to dispatchers? What does this mean for firefighters?

CW: Let’s say you’re a Type 2 Firefighter working on an engine crew. Along with the engine, you’re listed as an available resource in IROC. A new fire is called in and the dispatcher commits you and your engine to it in the dispatch software, and that information flows automatically up to IROC so that you and the engine are no longer listed as available.

When you go on scene (which is another call to dispatch), IRWIN begins an experience record for you as a Firefighter 2 on that fire. When you get released or reassigned, that experience flows back to the appropriate qualification system.

For the first time ever, we've integrated all these applications so that from the moment you’re dispatched to an incident there is an official record of exactly what you did.

And how did that work before this release of IRWIN?

CW: It was all manual: a lot of pen and paper. Taking hand-written information, passing it around for signatures or approvals, and entering it into different systems.

Does this update signal a trend for more coordination behind the scenes? What’s next?

JF: IRWIN was chartered to integrate incidents, resources, fuels, weather, and finance. We integrated incidents first, around six years ago, and we just went live with resources. We’re basically exposing the wildland fire community to what an integration service, a data integration service, can do for them one area at a time. People have been asking for fuels program data to be available through IRWIN, so I think we’ll be working on that next.

CW: One of my favorite things is the potential for more accurate reporting. Say lightning starts fires across three or four states over the course of an afternoon. A lot of engines and crews are dispatched to suppress those fires, and they’re all successful—meaning they put the fires out. Historically none of that data ever made it into the resource ordering system because the fires were out so quickly. Leadership at the local, regional, or national level didn't get a clear vision of draw down: of what's committed, what's available, and our overall capacity to manage fires. We’re still working through some issues, but in the very near future IRWIN will be able to provide that vision.

Neal Herbert is a Public Affairs Specialist with the Office of Wildland Fire. Read more about modern technology’s ability to change how we gather and share information about wildland fires.