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More Precise And Accurate Travel Time For Firefighters Crossing Rough Terrain

US Fire Administration

For wildfire firefighters, knowing exactly how long it takes for them to reach safety is critical, and new research provides more precise information about the time to cross different terrains and different slopes. 

"If you’re in the fire crew and you’re on the fire line and you need to evacuate the fire line to get to a safer area, then it is really valuable to understand exactly how long that’s going to take because understanding the difference between taking three minutes or taking four minutes could be the difference between injury or even fatality," said Mickey Campbell, a professor in the department of geosciences at Fort Lewis College in Colorado.

Campbell and his collaborators at the University of Utah and the US Forest Service found that current information about travel rates were outdated and relied on information based on only a few individuals.

"So we had this thought in the modern age of big data where everyone’s information and everyone’s position and location are being tracked by GPS on our phones, on our watches," Campbell said. "We asked the question if we can tap into this huge database of GPS tracked information then potentially we could really improve the accuracy and precision of the ability to predict travel rates as a function of slope."

Strava is a popular activity app that uses GPS to track and analyze physical activity such as running or cycling. Campbell used walking and hiking data of over 81,000 miles from Strava to better understand travel times across different terrains.

"With our current ability to map existing terrain conditions we can predict pretty accurately how it is going to take that individual to get from location A to location B with a higher degree of accuracy and a higher degree of precision than we’ve ever been able to do," Campbell said. 

This research is being directly applied to firefighter safety and search and rescue when knowing exactly how long it will take to cross a terrain can mean life or death.

"So if we know where a fire crew is at any given time based on the GPS on their phone and we know where this crew needs to get to in a dangerous situation knowing how fast people can move across the landscape based on slope conditions allows us to provide a really accurate estimate of the time it will take a fire crew to get from a fire line to the safety zone," Campbell said.