This App Can Fight Forest Fires

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of Sierra Club Green Home. Author credit goes to Debra Atlas.

For firefighters, timely information truly is of the essence. FireWhat Inc., a start-up company founded by two firefighters and an MIT graduate, has developed a free, game-changing mobile platform for the Fire Service. Its Web site and mobile appgive firefighters the latest information on fires, rather than having to depend on “updates” that can be 12 to 24 hours old. This helps save lives and, in some surprising ways, the environment.

FireWhat was born out of frustration, according to Sam Lanier, the company’s co-founder / CEO and a professional fire captain for Cal-Fire. Few people in the field know or understand technology, according to Lanier. In fact, when funding cuts hit the department, technology is usually the first thing to go. Lanier and his co-founder are not really tech folks, but they saw a gap – a need for real-time, up-to-the-minute information that would give their colleagues the ability to fight fires most effectively.

Firewhat App

image via FireWhat

Having this resource will help the Fire Service collect data and use it for future firefighting. That can mean quicker notifications, quicker response times, safer evacuations, and less loss to homeowners, the public, and the environment.

Forest Fires, FireWhat, and the Environment

Given the fact that around 100,000 forest fires destroy 4 to 5 million acres (1.6 million to 2 million hectares) of U.S. land each year, this is as much an environmental issue as preventing logging in old growth forests or keeping state parks open.

In fact, the impact of these forest fires goes beyond the devastation to our forests themselves. Toxic chemicals from dispersed fire retardant, forest ash, and burnt homes and appliances get absorbed by the surrounding environment after fires.

The things we have come to love in our homes – our computers, large-screen TVs, toasters, etc. – are not meant to be burned. Much of our e-waste is exported to other countries where it is burned to separate and “recover” the valuable metals such as cadmium, lead, mercury, and chromium. Many of these chemicals cause serious health and developmental problems in humans, particularly when burned.

And these chemicals are released into the air when fires ravage homes, businesses, and other buildings. FireWhat’s Web site and new mobile app offers the opportunity to prevent or at least minimize this environmental damage.

Giving Firefighters Instant Data

The company’s Web site is a virtual resource for firefighters. It catalogues multiple sources of information from across the Internet, including:

  • Fire maps;
  • Weather forecasting for specific fire sites; and
  • General weather warnings.

It provides a location to list current incidents (regionally and across the country), and includes the latest updates on size, type, and location of each fire. Having all of this information in one place helps firefighters assess each situation as accurately as possible.

The mobile app not only delivers this information, it also gives firefighters the ability to see into a fire’s future. It has fire behavior calculators which allow firefighters to input 27 variables including weather, elevation, and time, and then see how fast the fire will burn and where it will spread to.

“We’ve developed something that usually takes 18 minutes to input the numbers and come up with the calculation, [and then] gives you output in about two to three seconds,” says Lanier.

This essential information helps firefighters get ahead of disasters and prevent them from spreading.

Homeowners and FireWhat

FireWhat does not stop with helping the Fire Service however, it has developed a mobile app for homeowners and the general public. This app’s features include:

  • What documents to grab from your house;
  • When to evacuate;
  • What to do before the fire gets within a certain radius of your home; and
  • What steps to take if the fire does spread to your home.

The company is working on adding Red Cross shelters, directions to shelters, local resources, and other information to the homeowner app. Lanier predicts that this app will eventually replace current homeowners’ guides for fire safety.

“There’s so much that can be done with it. We aim to solve problems and save lives,” says Lanier.

Lanier and his company are working to acquire additional funding in order to expand the apps’ capabilities and get the word out about these life-saving products.

“Once [the Fire Service] sees the benefit, it’s a win-win – it’s free for them, free to the public,” says Lanier.

We at Sierra Club Green Home salute FireWhat. With the devastating fires in Colorado and elsewhere still raging and a long fire season ahead, this company’s efforts will definitively make a difference.

FireWhat’s mobile apps are available at the iTunes App Store as a full-feature app or a more basic version.