A Moses Lake legislator is sponsoring a bill that would allow Washington state to use GPS locaters to track wildland firefighters and vehicles in real time.

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OLYMPIA — Even as Rep. Tom Dent described himself Wednesday as preferring the 19th century over the 21st century, the rancher and Moses Lake Republican pitched a decidedly modern idea to keep wildland firefighters safe.

Dent is sponsoring House Bill 2924, which would authorize the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to use GPS locaters to track wildland-fire vehicles and personnel in real time.

“If we knew where they were at and they get in trouble,” said Dent during a public hearing on the bill in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, “then it would give us an opportunity to help them.”

Dent’s proposal comes amid a slew of bills intended to improve the state’s response to wildfires, which last year scorched more than a million acres and left three firefighters dead. The bill — which has bipartisan sponsorship — is scheduled for a committee vote Thursday.

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A GPS system could supplement the walkie-talkies and cellphones that firefighters now use and allow for constant tracking of firefighters. Staff at fire-management bases could then monitor where crews are in relation to blazes and expected weather patterns.

“It’s knowing where they’re at in relation to their safety zone and escape routes,” said Sean Triplett of the U.S. Forest Service.

DNR has done some early research on GPS, according to Bob Johnson, the agency’s wildfire-division manager. Setting up a system could cost $1.5 million, Johnson told lawmakers.

“Improving safety for our firefighters is paramount and we’d view this technology … as a viable supplement to existing safety measures,” wrote Mary Verner, DNR’s deputy supervisor for resource protection. “Though, it, like many technologies, does have its limitations.”

Challenges, benefits

GPS locaters are used by various departments and agencies around the country, according to Triplett.

But there aren’t yet national standards for GPS systems, so when firefighters come from different agencies or another state to fight large blazes, they may not have equipment that works together, according to Triplett.

Steve Pollock, chief regional fire coordinator for the Texas A&M Fire Service, said it took about three years to develop that agency’s GPS system. When it goes live in July, it will be able to track more than 200 bulldozers, fire engines and coordinating vehicles, he said.

The challenges included getting software code written and creating tags for the program to recognize the types of vehicles being tracked, Pollock said.

The system also will allow his agency “to dispatch the closest, most appropriate resources” as fires ignite or change direction, according to Pollock.

GPS tracking, however, may not have saved the lives of the firefighters killed last August in Okanogan County, according to Tom Zimmerman, president of the International Association of Wildland Fire.

Shifting winds pushed flames and smoke onto the team, forcing them to retreat blindly down a winding dirt road to their deaths. Zimmerman notes the crew was in radio communication, and in an area with other people around them.

Still, firefighters on the ground “only ever see a piece of the situation” and GPS could help with that.

“I think knowing where everybody was,” he said, “would be a valuable asset from a safety standpoint.”