May 23, 2007

Smoke Signals: The Evolution of California Firefighting from the Eyes of Fire Captain Ron Serabia

Whether flying aerial attacks against wildfires or scaling towers to install wireless relays, southern California Fire Captain Ronald Serabia has been at the forefront of a transformation in emergency communications.

In this Live Science interview (related to a new National Science Foundation activity) by Kimberly Mann Bruch, Ron reflects back on his career - from before his earliest firefighting days to his recent work helping researchers with NSF's High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network (HPWREN) develop cutting-edge digital links connecting local command posts, the state capital, and firefighters' families during major wildfire disasters.

Kimberly: First of all, we'd like to have some insight about how you started your career as a firefighter.
Ron: Well, Kim, growing up back in the fifties, Ramona was a little town that only had about 2000 people. Everyone was friendly where I grew up - across the alley from the Ramona Volunteer Fire Department, where my dad was a fireman. I remember the wail of the siren on the fire station roof and off he'd go - running across that alley and hopping on one of the fire engines to go help extinguish the blaze. My brother, the neighbor kids, and me - we'd all run across the alley after they left and sneak in the back door to listen to the radio and then we'd run home to report the news to our moms and the other kids that were too chicken to run over there with us. It was around this time - I must have been about eight-years-old when I knew that I wanted to be a fireman.

Ramona Airport, CDF-USFS Base, 1958.

Ron Serabia as a child in 1958 at the Ramona Airport.

Kimberly: So, that early? Wow. Did you continue to follow this dream?
Ron: Yeah, pretty much. We moved to Chula Vista in 1965 where I finished high school, and I worked as a college sleeper at the Montgomery Fire Department in Chula Vista. Was paid 200 bucks a month, a place to sleep, and dinner every night. In exchange for all this, I fought fires and helped with writing reports at the station while going to school at Southwestern College. Back then, we didn't even have computer like we do today - we handwrote everything.

Kimberly: What were the disadvantages of handwriting all of your reports?
Ron: It meant we had no back-up copies of anything at the station - we sent everything out and never got copies - we didn't even have copy machines back in those days. We were also being interrupted all the time while writing these reports, so this caused a bunch of errors and delays in even getting them done. And, I guess, too, it took forever to train somebody new on how to fill out the forms - they were really long forms and to write out everything was very time-consuming.

Kimberly: I can only imagine. So, back to your college days. What was your major?
Ron: I studied Police Science, because back then there wasn't a Fire Science major available there for us. Then I was planning on actually becoming a CHP Officer - kind of venturing away from my original childhood goal of becoming a fireman. It must have been in late 1968 when I applied and took the California State Highway Patrol test. But, after temporarily losing the vision in my right eye during a firefighting accident, I could not complete the physical for CHP, and had to leave the exam process.

Kimberly: Wow. What happened?
Ron: Accidents can and do happen, but this accident was my one and only major accident during my 34 plus years as a firefighter. The hoses that we use to fight fires have high pressures and volume - it takes strong firefighters to control and hold onto them right. Anyway, we were conducting a night-time training drill - I don't remember any pain when the two-and-half-inch pounding stream of water directly hit the right side of my face after breaking my clear safety shield. This power jet of water knocked me right off my feet and I remember two things. I was very wet and couldn't see anything out of my right eye. I was rushed to the hospital and had surgery the very next morning. For about four days, I couldn't see anything out of my right eye. Fortunately, though, my loss of sight was only temporary, I regained my vision once the swelling went down and was only off work and school for about four weeks.

Kimberly: That's crazy! Did you go back and take the CHP exam then and become a police officer for a while or what next?
Ron: After I recovered from that accident, I ended up returning to my original dream and wound up working as a seasonal firefighter the summer of 1969 with CDF-the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection-at the Julian Fire Station. About a year after I started at Julian, I ended up in Orange County working for CDF as a firefighter at station 27 with the crash crew at the Orange County Airport.

Kimberly: What exactly does crash crew do?
Ron: Well, we spent three to four hours a day training for a plane crash, even though while I was on the crew we only had one small crash - that was off the airport in Irvine's industrial area. We also had two engines and a heavy rescue at that station, so with only 14 firefighters on duty, every day was busy. We also did the usual firefighting and rescues and we all took turns making three meals a day for all the firefighters - starting at 5:30 in the morning. Then we'd do housekeeping chores around the fire house, wash the fire hoses, and so on. We also trained American West Airlines flight attendants in basic first-aid and fire extinguisher use. I guess I was only there for a little while before heading to the Miramar Fire Station back in San Diego, where I took a job driving the fire engine.

Ramona Air Attack Base, 1970.

Kimberly: Wow. So, you already had several experiences with firefighting - at a relatively young age. What next?
Ron: Well, let's see. For the next ten years or so, I worked as a Fire Apparatus Engineer in San Diego, Riverside, and San Bernadino Counties at various stations, at one point being assigned to Ramona CDF at Mount Woodson. Actually Mount Woodson is now one of the backbone nodes for HPWREN, but back then, the technology used for communication among first responders at Ramona, and everywhere else, was the same as it was years before: we still used two-way radios, which only allowed for sharing one type of information, voice. Anyway, this stage of my career ended with my promotion to Fire Captain in 1977. I was assigned to the Warner Springs Fire Station, one of the best station locations in San Diego, with more than 300 days of sunshine, quiet, a great view of the Palomar Mountain. And always a cool breeze.

Kimberly: Did the breeze, ironically, fuel fires?
Ron: Yes, in fact it played a major role in any fire that started out there. It would start to blow around eleven o'clock in the morning from the west, then stop after dark. Most summer days would reach 85 degrees-even in the shade of some of the largest oak trees in the county.

Kimberly: What was the primary cause of fires out there?
Ron: Well, that area of Warner Springs averages about 30-40 fires within the initial attack season every year. Most of them originate from lightning strikes that come with the sub-tropical storms of the desert.

Kimberly: What came after your experience at Warner Springs and what's been most memorable about your
Ron: Well, it was more than ten years later, after attending the air attack school in Redding, that I began my career as an air tactical group supervisor in the CDF aviation program. One of the most memorable days during the past ten years was in 2001. We flew to a fire just north of the 210 and I-5 split. That fire burned only about 75 acres, so we were then diverted from there to a new fire east of Fresno in the Sierras. I didn't return to Ramona for the rest that week. After eight days on that fire in the Sierras, we flew back to Ramona.

Kimberly: What type of radios were you using at this point-in 2001?
Ron: We're still using two-way voice radios, but they became a bit more powerful over the years. And, in 2001, we were still using handwritten reports to document incidents; typewriters were available, but few firefighters were proficient at using them. Now that's different, but just real recently. As for the radios, the ones we use in the aircraft are some of the best available. However, communication in the fire service still has many areas of weakness - such as the lack of real-time imagery and data-other than voice.

Kimberly: How would real-time imagery and real-time data help you out?
Ron: By giving the ground firefighters an exact image of what I see from the air. It's easy to describe something, but in the case of large fires like the Cedar Fire, words can't explain the complete devastation and destruction over such a huge area. It's kindof like I told a news reporter during the Cedar Fire, I had the best, or depending on your view, possibly the worst, seat in the house.

The view from the cockpit as Ron Serabia flies over a California fire on August 5, 2006, in CDF's OV10 aircraft.

Ron Serabia in the cockpit en route to a fire.

Kimberly: Speaking of that seat, what exactly does the air tactical group supervisor do?
Ron: I'm the one that sits tandem - behind the pilot - of an OV-10 Bronco and I use six radios. I'm the aerial traffic coordinator for all aircraft assigned to a particular incident. We stay in an orbit at about 3,000 feet above ground level-directly over the incident-and coordinate all the fixed and rotary wing assignments using FM and VHF radios. We also give the Incident Commander our view in words on tactical decisions and plans for suppression and control of wildfires. Every aircraft assigned or operating near the incident, including news media and law enforcement can only fly with our permission and control. Civilian and military aircraft that may fly into our incident are warned to stay away by Department of Defense Notice to Airmen (NOTAMS), that we place with the FAA through radio contact.

Fire Captain Ron Serabia with a Cessna 02-A Aircraft in 1989.

Kimberly: What were the communication methods used when you first started?
Ron: In the mid-nineties, when I became air tactical group supervisor at the Ramona Air Attack Base, we were using two-way VHF and FM radios as our main mode of communication. We also got a personal computer with limited dial-up Internet access sometime in the nineties. With that, we could transfer data to and from the CDF headquarters in Sacramento - personnel timesheets, aircraft flight data, incident reports, and such. But even with this advance, I'd be on the computer for a minimum of three hours just to transmit three timesheets.

Kimberly: So, how has your method of communication changed since 2001? You mentioned that you were still using handwritten reports in 2001-what about now?
Ron: It was only in the last few years that California firefighters joined forces with HPWREN to bring emergency communications to the next level. CDF Fire Captain Carl Schwettman met Hans-Werner Braun-a researcher at the University of California, San Diego, and HPWREN's leader-at a 2003 first responders meeting, and both of them were interested in how the Ramona Air Attack base might use a high-speed, wireless Internet connection to bring crisis communications into the 21st century.

Because the air attack base is situated in a remote, hard-to-reach area, no other method of digital communication was available - Hans-Werner's idea of connecting the air attack base to HPWREN sounded great to Carl. At the time, I was Fire Captain at the Ramona Air Attack Base. It must have been sometime in June when Carl called me and said that some crazy German research guy from UCSD was interested in talking to us about getting some high performance network connection at the air attack base. All I could think was, "Cool!"

We got connected to HPWREN on July 4th, Independence Day and as the month went on I started to realize that there was more to the network than cutting the time it took to send out those three timesheets from three hours to thirty minutes. The system got its first real-world firefighting test with the Coyote Fire, an intense blaze that ravaged 17,000 acres in southern California. CDF sent 1700 firefighters, nine helicopters and seven bulldozers into that battle.

We had ten CDF airtankers and nine helicopters assigned to the Coyote Fire, which was started by lightning north of Warner Springs. It was first reported as being in Riverside County, as they also were working a fire near Idylwild. So there was confusion and delay in sending resources. A camera if placed on High Point (United States Forest Service - USFS) would have verified the fire was indeed in a very rugged location in San Diego County. The winds were very erratic and gusty, making our first retardant drops very dangerous. The fire was driven for five days by strong winds from thunderstorms and drought stressed fuels that had not burned since 1945.

Kimberly: Wow - that sounds really intense. How exactly did firefighters utilize the HPWREN technology during the Coyote Fire?
Ron: The Incident Command Post at Puerto La Cruz was connected directly to HPWREN by relays, and it was then that we started to realize the benefit of high performance data communication during incidents. We were able to send real-time info to headquarters in Sacramento and the overall firefighting effort became a lot more efficient.

Prior to this connection to HPWREN, all of our data was sent over dial-up and it took four or more hours. During the Coyote Fire and current incidents, we were and are able to transmit the reports in real-time so that headquarters can better organize firefighting efforts for not only our local fire, but fires throughout the entire state.

In addition to relaying words, we can also now send real-time images. The HPWREN cameras and sensors on top of San Diego mountaintops were vital to officials at headquarters during the Coyote Fire especially - administrators could view the actual real-time images and had the ability to make better decisions as they managed the incident from afar.

Kimberly: Is this the time period that you became more involved with the HPWREN technology?
Ron: Yes-just afterwards. Hans-Werner and his research partner Frank Vernon had seen me give a few presentations about these firefighting efforts and in 2004 asked me if I'd be interested in formally joining the team as the project's first responder coordinator. My first activity with the group was in March, when I helped install an HPWREN-connected camera on top of Lyons Peak in San Diego County. From there, I had many adventures in tower climbing, antenna installations, and sensor and camera installations.

Ron Serabia helps to work on sensor, camera, and video installation and maintenance on an HPWREN-connected sensor system located atop Lyons Peak.

Kimberly: Any specific installation adventures that stick out in your mind?
Ron: I've spent many great days since retiring as a fire captain to work with the HPWREN team-installing microwave antennas, radios, cameras and weather instruments at some of the best locations around San Diego County. I remember the first day at Lyons Peak with Hans-Werner, Jim Hale, and Bud Hale very well-as Bud gave me a safety briefing of the use and purpose of the climbing harness before my accent up the 180-foot tower. Then, at lunchtime we were discussing what I used to do with CDF and firefighting, and I mentioned the frequent daily safety naps. Well since that day, it's been a point of discussion and humor, especially after a long morning working on a HPWREN site.

Kimberly: So, did you really get to take a nap when you were a firefighter??
Ron: Yes, but for safety reasons. You occasionally get woke up in the middle of the night, you aren't always asleep-as that is the most often time that people call 911-so you have to sleep when you can when you're a firefighter-hence the daily safety naps.

Kimberly: Since you've formally joined the HPWREN team, what exactly do you do, and what would you describe as a highlight of your experience thus far?
Ron: I'm now the first responder coordinator with the HPWREN team for implementing high-speed connectivity at remote fires - like the Volcan Fire in September 2005 and the Border 50 Fire in October 2005. I also help Hans-Werner with research on the 4.9 gigahertz public safety band that first responders will someday use during incidents. And, I also spend time looking into weather stations, cameras, and sensors that we might add to the always-growing HPWREN-connected mountaintop camera and sensor systems.

As for the highlight. Well, in September 2004 I narrated a DVD of real-time images for a documentary about the Cedar Fire. This included my own perspective as the incident's air tactical group supervisor. I talked about how the weather factors affected the fire's spread and the aerial attack during the first morning of the fire.

But, I'd say that the highlight of the past year-2006-was the installation of four cameras and weather sensors at Lyons Peak and establishing the Incident Command Post (ICP) connection for the Volcan Fire near Julian. Connectivity to HPWREN from this extremely hard-to-reach ICP was a major challenge, but we managed to make the link work within only a few hours.

Kimberly: What do you predict as the future of firefighting and the utilization of HPWREN or a similar system?
Ron: The major wildfire of 2006 was the Horse Fire and by now the CDF clearly recognizes the need for an HPWREN-like system for the transmission of data to and from state headquarters in a timely manner. We're continuing to work with them to research and explore news ways that the 4.9 gigahertz public safety band can be useful for rural incident locations. If agreements and requirements can be met by CDF, then we plan on connecting the Emergency Command Center to HPWREN using 4.9 gigahertz radios. Ironically the USFS dispatch is co-located with CDF there, so they will also benefit from the new link. This will assure both agencies of a high-speed backup link to use during major incidents here in San Diego County.

For the past five years...

...the National Science Foundation's High Performance Wireless Research Network (HPWREN) team has been working with San Diego County first responders to better understand how high-speed wireless ad-hoc networking can assist with incident management in hard-to-reach areas.

This east-pointing HPWREN automated digital camera image taken atop Lyons Peak depicts the Horse Fire around 8pm on Sunday, July 23, 2006. This animation collected via a real-time camera shows the details. Another real-time camera atop the mountain-top captured video during the first day of the fire.

The HPWREN researchers have worked with the community to establish digital connectivity at three California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) pre-designated Incident Command Posts (ICPs) and deployed high-speed network communication capabilities at six major wildfire ICP sites: Coyote Fire (July 2003), Eagle Fire (May 2004), Mataguay Fire (July 2004), Volcan Fire (Sept 2005), Border 50 Fire (October 2005), and Horse Fire (July 2006).

In addition to high-speed network access, CDF sites connected to HPWREN have access to real-time video and still cameras as well as meteorology sensors at Mount Laguna and Lyons Peak. Included with the suite of meteorology sensors is a real-time alert system that automatically pages first responders when concerning environmental conditions are present. Shown here is an anemometer atop Mount Laguna and a camera atop Lyons Peak.

"To assure long-term continuity of high-performance and reliable data networking, it is important that the technology gets transformed into agency-owned critical infrastructure environments that the public safety agencies need," says Hans-Werner Braun, HPWREN Principal Investigator. "The creation of the 3C's network and its support of multiple agencies are precisely in line with the next steps needed."

The 3C's Network mentioned by Hans-Werner Braun is the Communications Command and Control Network, which will soon allow multiple southern California public safety agencies to communicate with one another in the data environment as they currently are in the voice environment.

The HPWREN-like digital communication system, which is being funded by several public safety and homeland security grants, will integrate Voice-over-IP, for both phone and FAX needs.

Additionally, video conferencing as well as real-time sensor telemetry and data integration will be utilized, once the system is in place.

The 3C's Network is being developed by a consortium including the CDF, the San Diego City Police Department, the San Diego City Fire and Life Safety Department, and the San Diego County Sheriff.

"The HPWREN-like network our consortium is building will enable the construction of a 'first of its kind' wireless network that will keep this region on the national forefront of technology advancements in interoperable communications," says Chris Hinshaw, Manager of the Wireless Services Division at the San Diego County Sheriff's Department.

Additional information regarding the project can be found at http://hpwren.ucsd.edu/news/20061130/.

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