A Better Way to Detect and Respond to Fires

As recent tragedies have demonstrated, fires are an escalating threat in many countries because of world-wide climate changes. Fires can kill first responders and homeowners, and cause millions of dollars in damage before being brought under control.

According to the Australian government, from 2001 to 2009 brush fires in Australia were responsible for the deaths of over 200 people and caused an estimated $1.9 billion in damage.  Since 2000, fires in the United States have also led to billions of dollars in damage and the loss of over 64 people.

The key to controlling the toll taken by fire, especially in outlying areas, is early detection and warning. Intelsat General is currently monitoring the development of a space-based fire detection capability for the United States, Australia, and other nations.  Wide Field of View (WFOV) Infrared (IR) sensors were initially designed for military applications, however Intelsat General is now considering how we might leverage similar satellite surveillance technologies for civil applications.

WFOV space-based sensors have recently demonstrated the capability to provide continuous infrared imaging over areas as large as a quarter of the earth. This means an entire country, including the territorial regions, can be viewed 24/7/365 from geosynchronous orbit, enabling timely fire detection and environmental monitoring.

Fire detection today typically relies on ground-based and other limited technologies.  In Australia and here in the United States, local and national fire agencies rely on ground-based sensors and aircraft that simply cannot provide constant situational awareness. It’s an expensive, labor-intensive and often inefficient approach to threat identification.

Recently, less expensive space-based WFOV IR sensor technologies have been developed which provide the required tools for detection of both short duration events (such as explosions) as well as long duration thermal events (such as brush and house fires).  Today hosting these WFOV payloads on commercial satellites provides a much less expensive option.  Hosting on commercial communications satellites results in “access to space” costs that are dramatically lower.  Cost is reduced by sharing spacecraft and launch costs with other users and using existing worldwide satellite communications infrastructure.

Intelsat has already hosted government payloads for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration Geostationary Communications and Control Segment Wide Area Augmentation System (GCCS WAAS), the U.S. Department of Defense and industry-sponsored Internet Routing in Space (IRIS), and a UHF payload for the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

Constant situational awareness provided by geostationary satellite sensors could also give real-time notice of other natural disasters (i.e. volcanic) and allowing immediate emergency personnel notification. Applications can be developed that could automatically forward data to devices like iPads or smartphones allowing evacuation notices and dispatching of emergency personnel. This is a quantum leap from the methods used today, which haven’t changed in decades.

Making full use of this technology will require a new way of thinking, and hopefully result in closer coordination of federal, state and local first responders.