by Stephanie Overby

iPad App Helps Forest Service Distribute Maps for Firefighters

Jan 30, 20134 mins
MobileSmall and Medium BusinessTablets

The U.S. Forest Service deploys a mobile map application for firefighters and emergency responders to use in the field and for tactical planning

The U.S. Forest Service deploys a mobile map application for firefighters and emergency responders to use in the field and for tactical planning

The Project: Implement a mobile map application for U.S. Forest Service firefighters and emergency-situation units to use in the field and for tactical planning.

The Business Case: As a fire engine captain and a situation unit leader for the U.S. Forest Service, Chris Brenzel oversees production and distribution of the maps (and fire-behavior assessments and weather forecasts) for his 52-person emergency-response team and the camps of 2,000 to 5,000 federal firefighters responding to disasters across the country. While the map-distribution process had improved since the days of cutting up topographic maps from the U.S. Geological Survey, taping them together and running them through the photocopier, it remained labor- and paper-intensive, with Brenzel producing up to 150,000 map pages a day. Because of the time required for printing, the deadline for editing the maps was 9 p.m. the night before a shift. With fast-moving wildfires, the maps distributed to firefighters at 6 a.m. were already antiquated.

First Steps: Brenzel looked at several digital display options and selected Avenza’s free PDF map app for its ease of use, display quality and clean functionality. He and his team tested the app for two months over the summer on an iPad purchased with Brenzel’s own money (the federal government provides only one rented tablet per situation unit) while responding to incidents at the Cleveland National Forest in San Diego. Brenzel’s team compared notes with other situation units experimenting with mobile apps before having others, including the firefighters, download the Avenza app on their personal devices in August. Although Brenzel uses Esri’s GIS mapping software, not Avenza’s MAPublisher, to build his maps, pushing them to the app as PDFs is as simple as checking a box before export. “We can make edits to the maps up to a half-hour before the morning briefing,” says Brenzel, a former fire captain. “It gives us what they call in the military a better common operating picture.”

That was clear when Brenzel and his team were coming off of a 14-day shift fighting the 41,983-acre North Pass Fire in the Mendocino National Forest last summer. “The biggest benefit was using it to brief the team [on the next shift],” says Brenzel. “We were all in the helicopter [overlooking the forest] and it can be disorienting up there. Everyone was able to take out their tablets and look at the custom map as we went over our concerns and what issues we were leaving for the other team. It made for a smooth transition.”

There are currently 2,000 users of the app, and Brenzel expects that number to triple this year as his unit starts chasing the fire season from late February to early November. “We’re also starting to work with the battalion chiefs making maps of the forest for the day-to-day project work that we do when we’re not on fire,” such as creating community defense fuel breaks, where people remove vegetation around the forest to stop a fire’s spread and protect homes.

What to Watch Out For: Avenza has not yet introduced its Android app, so Brenzel had to implement a different map distribution app for half of his users. He also had to figure out a stable method of distribution since most federal sites use protected intranets. Ultimately, he created a public folder in DropBox and embedded QR codes into the incident action plan and paper maps so that users could quickly import them to their devices.

Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.