A dispatcher at the Boise Interagency Dispatch Center tracks wildfires and firefighting resources in southwestern Idaho. Photo by Neal Herbert, Department of the Interior.
BY MICHAEL CAMPBELL
The 2021 fire year continued a trend that wildland fire agencies have observed for the past 20 years: wildland fire activity is occurring earlier in the spring; lasting longer into the fall; and involving larger, more extreme fires. As climate change continues to propel this new reality, the tools wildland firefighters rely on to do their jobs have never been more important. And these tools extend beyond a Pulaski or brush hook to software and applications that enable fire personnel to report and access information and communicate with one another.
With tens of thousands of wildland firefighting agencies spread throughout the U.S., each with its own computer network and security protocols, achieving seamless information sharing is far from straightforward.
FireNet helps to overcome these challenges by providing a secure workspace for the community to create and collaborate across electronic files. It enables staff across different organizations to use the plethora of collaborative features offered by Microsoft Teams and SharePoint, such as messaging, scheduling, email communication, and more. It’s available across the wildland fire community for federal, Tribal, state, local, and territorial agencies in support of national wildland fire management.
The real key to FireNet’s success is that it is a single, cloud-based platform that provides the diverse fire community a single point of access where they can share information regardless of their affiliation. It is supported by an internet browser and can be accessed from both computer and mobile devices.
This solution didn’t happen overnight. It stems from a commitment from the Department of the Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire and Office of the Chief Information Officer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service, and leadership to build a communication and collaboration solution for the wildland fire community.
FireNet was originally piloted by the USDA Forest Service to support interagency communication for a small number of people. The benefits of expanding it to the interagency community at large were quickly realized, but security controls and authorization to operate within a government environment took time to develop. FireNet was chartered in December 2015 under the Wildland Fire Information and Technology Board with management assumed by Interior’s Chief Information Office. The environment underwent a significant migration to Microsoft Office 365 in early 2020 to align with the needs of both the USDA Forest Service and Interior Department, and management was transferred to the Office of Wildland Fire.
Since 2018, the National Multi-Agency Coordination Group, which prioritizes and allocates firefighting resources nationally, has recognized FireNet as the official electronic messaging and file collaboration system for wildland fire agencies.
At its core, FireNet is a way to make sure everyone in the wildland firefighting community has access to the same information and can work on files in real time. FireNet helps to limit repetition and variations by incident management teams and geographic area command centers. In turn, wildland firefighters have less data to sort through and far less chance for duplication, redundancy, or error.
Because each federal, state, Tribal, and local government has its own email system and process requirements, it can be difficult to figure out the ropes when initially assigned to a fire or a dispatch center, but this nimble collaboration environment allows fire information access not only for full-time, career fire personnel but also temporary and seasonal workers, retirees, and volunteers.
"At any point, our interagency workforce can seamlessly collaborate and share information," said Carol Connolly with the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center and a FireNet user.
The success of FireNet over the past several years is significant. Currently, there are over 21,000 active users and guest members who work on wildland fire incidents. As more users come onboard, the system has been able to chip away at many of the bureaucratic walls that historically divided firefighting organizations, creating a fully collaborative approach to wildland fire communications.
These successes have built upon each other as more and more wildland firefighters and support personnel have discovered the platform’s benefits. Since 2018, the use of FireNet has increased by more than 280 percent. In 2021, it was used on over 220 wildland fire incidents across the U.S.
It should come as no surprise that communication and collaboration are the keys to wildland firefighting success. It’s of little benefit for one state to operate in isolation or for bureaus at the Interior Department to only be able to talk among themselves. By creating an environment where all individuals in the wildland fire community can easily interact with one another, FireNet makes communication and collaboration seamless so fire personnel can focus on their jobs. And its impact on fire operations will only become more significant in the coming years.
Michael Campbell, currently serving on a detail as a public affairs specialist with Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire, works in communications for the Bureau of Land Management’s Oregon/Washington state office.