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For crews fighting wildfires, the ability to get information is crucial. A breakdown in communications was one factor that led to the deaths last year of 19 firefighters in Arizona. In 2011 two crew members died in Florida while fighting a blaze. With those accidents in mind, Florida has begun using a new radio tracking system. NPR's Greg Allen reports that even through smoke and fire, it allows managers to pinpoint firefighters' locations.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: In the west crews fight wildfires with shovels and chainsaws. In Florida the main tool is the bulldozer.
(SOUNDBITE OF BULLDOZER)
ALLEN: Jeff Radakovic with Florida's forest service says the real work is done by what the bulldozer is pulling, a plow.
JEFF RADAKOVIC: What it does is it's just like a plow they use on the farm fields. It digs a trench basically into the ground.
ALLEN: In Florida there are more than 16 million acres of forest and massive expanses of grasslands extending through the Everglades. In 2011, a bad year for fires here, two firefighters were using bulldozers to dig breaks around a small blaze when both got stuck on tree stumps.
Radakovic says, for a bulldozer operator, running onto a stump is a bad deal.
RADAKOVIC: It gets them off the ground. If that happens, it's difficult to get off of it, especially in a situation like they were in, where the fire was, you know, knocking on their door.
ALLEN: The firefighters abandoned their machines and were overtaken by fire before they could get to safety. The accident helped spur state officials to roll out an "asset tracking system." Florida Forest Service director, Jim Karels, says a radio tracking device is now on bulldozers, trucks and other vehicles they use to fight fires.
JIM KARELS: And a computer program that overlays it onto satellite imagery, and that the fire supervisor is then able to, from his truck at the fire, be able to monitor where his equipment are and what they're doing.
ALLEN: Two years after Florida's fatal fire, a much larger fire in Arizona grabbed the nation's attention.
DAVID GREENE: 19 firefighters were killed yesterday as they battled a wildfire in the small community of Yarnell.
ALLEN: Karels traveled from Florida to direct the investigation in Arizona. He says that disaster again showed the need to improve communications and find a way to track crews fighting wildfires.
KARELS: Even in our day and age, communications can be somewhat a struggle, whether it's remote conditions of the West, or whether it's remote conditions of the swamps of Florida.
ALLEN: Forest service supervisor, Chris Wasil, sits in his SUV at a wildlife refuge in Palm Beach County. It's nearly 800 acres of pines, saw palmetto and scrub surrounded by subdivisions. Wasil scans his laptop with a map pinpointing where his firefighters and their equipment are located.
CHRIS WASIL: Yeah, this Everglade's 37 is that bulldozer that's already dead and I'm the green dot on here so I can see where I'm at on the map, also.
ALLEN: The map shows the bulldozer's track, its coordinates and speed. Wasil and his crew just started using the new asset tracker and haven't yet tested it on a big fire. But he expects it will be useful, especially when he studies aerial maps and coordinates tactics during a wildfire.
WASIL: Like you can see on here, as this bulldozer is moving, there's a big wetland area here. I can either let him know it's a good safety area if he had - maybe I could get into and get out, keep from getting in here, or it might not be a good idea to go through it.
ALLEN: Florida Forest Service is only using the tracker right now just on its equipment. Director Jim Karels believes the system can be adapted to track people as well as vehicles. On large wildfires in the West, though, dozens of agencies and contract crews often pitch in, with 1,000 firefighters. The biggest challenge there may be one not of technology, but of coordination. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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