Technology Assessment:

Protecting Structures and Improving Communications during Wildland Fires

GAO-05-380: Published: Apr 26, 2005. Publicly Released: Apr 26, 2005.

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Since 1984, wildland fires have burned an average of more than 850 homes each year in the United States and, because more people are moving into fire-prone areas bordering wildlands, the number of homes at risk is likely to grow. The primary responsibility for ensuring that preventive steps are taken to protect homes lies with homeowners and state and local governments, not the federal government. Although losses from wildland fires made up only 2 percent of all insured catastrophic losses from 1983 through 2002, fires can result in billions of dollars in damages. Once a wildland fire starts, various parties can be mobilized to fight it, including federal, state, local, and tribal firefighting agencies and, in some cases, the military. The ability to communicate among all parties--known as interoperability--is essential but, as GAO has reported previously, is hampered because different public safety agencies operate on different radio frequencies or use incompatible communications equipment. GAO was asked to assess, among other issues, (1) measures that can help protect structures from wildland fires, (2) factors affecting use of protective measures, and (3) the role technology plays in improving firefighting agencies' ability to communicate during wildland fires.

The two most effective measures for protecting structures from wildland fires are: (1) creating and maintaining a buffer, called defensible space, from 30 to 100 feet wide around a structure, where vegetation and other flammable objects are reduced or eliminated; and (2) using fire-resistant roofs and vents. In addition to roofs and vents, other technologies--such as fire-resistant windows and building materials, chemical agents, sprinklers, and geographic information systems mapping--can help in protecting structures and communities, but they play a secondary role. A lthough protective measures are available, many property owners have not adopted them because of the time or expense involved, competing concerns such as aesthetics or privacy, misperceptions about wildland fire risks, and lack of awareness of their shared responsibility for fire protection. Federal, state, and local governments, as well as other organizations, are attempting to increase property owners' use of protective measures through education, direct monetary assistance, and laws requiring such measures. In addition, some insurance companies have begun to direct property owners in high-risk areas to take protective steps. Existing technologies, such as audio switches, can help link incompatible communication systems, and new technologies, such as software-defined radios, are being developed following common standards or with enhanced capabilities to overcome incompatibility barriers. Technology alone, however, cannot solve communications problems for those responding to wildland fires. Rather, planning and coordination among federal, state, and local public safety agencies is needed to resolve issues such as which technologies to adopt, cost sharing, operating procedures, training, and maintenance. The Department of Homeland Security is leading federal efforts to improve communications interoperability across all levels of government. In addition to federal efforts, several states and local jurisdictions are pursuing initiatives to improve communications interoperability.

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