Steven Robinson was a pilot who couldn't fly. A horrific helicopter crash in March 1998 killed most of his crew and left him with a head injury that nearly killed him -- twice.

He still has the EKG tape that shows his heart stopping.

The injury eventually left him medically unable to pilot an aircraft, relegated him to light duty four days a week and made his future with the Los Angeles City Fire Department uncertain. He recovered from the incident -- after nearly two years of rehabilitation -- and even got his pilot's license back.

But in 2001, he suffered a seizure and was grounded again. His future was tenuous.

"When I was on light duty, I was sometimes looking for things to do," Robinson said. "I needed to get something going quickly, or the department was going to be done with me."

All the while, the department continued to battle wildfires the only way it knew how: putting "the wet stuff on the red stuff," said Robinson's cohort and fellow pilot, Lance Messner. "You see a fire from an aviation standpoint and from ground units, and you get out there and kick its butt."

It isn't a very scientific or efficient approach, and it's dangerous, especially for fire crews on the ground.

But as Messner and Robinson continued to fight fires -- Messner piloting the craft and Robinson helping navigate -- Robinson began playing with a new UltiChart computer on one of the helicopters. It's a basic GPS device that helps the pilot get from one point to another. Robinson found AeroComputers' UltiChart did more than just aid navigation; it also produced fire perimeter lengths and acreage coverage, which impressed incident commanders.

Whenever a fire broke out after that, the pilots' phones would ring, and incident commanders would want the two pilots airborne and helping ground commanders locate hot spots. The duo flew over a fire, "geo-referenced" the area by latitude and longitude with the UltiChart, and provided the information via radio to ground commanders equipped with handheld GPS units. Those commanders then knew exactly where the fire was and could avoid hiking around arbitrarily looking for hot spots.

"We started getting calls from the Forest Service, Los Angeles County and the California Department of Forestry because they didn't have the ability to do this," Messner said.

After more experimentation with the UltiChart, Robinson discovered he could produce GIS maps. When the duo received a request to provide some infrared images of hot spots during a fire near San Bernardino, Calif., they also created a GIS map of the fire. They videotaped the image of the map with a handheld camera and showed the tape to incident commanders, who were in awe.

The duo began producing GIS maps for commanders, although it was an arduous process that took hours.

A Better Way

Buoyed by the interest in his maps, Robinson made a phone call to Russ Johnson, public safety industry manager at ESRI.

"I said, 'I'm fireman Steve from L.A. city, and I want to learn how to do this,'" Robinson recalled, explaining his interest in GIS mapping and describing to Johnson the process he hit upon to deliver GIS maps to incident commanders.

Johnson listened and knew he could help streamline the process.

"The only way they could get that information to people who needed to make decisions was to land the helicopter, pull the disk out of the onboard computer, go into their operation center, plot a map, roll it up, hit plot again, take off and fly it physically to the incident command post, come back, get another map, hit print again, fly it physically to the police headquarters or incident

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor