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California Awards Grants to Develop New Firefighting Tech

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced two vendor contracts for prototype solutions for wildfire detection and predictive modeling to help firefighters, law enforcement and the public as fires become more devastating.

When California Gov. Gavin Newsom came into office in January, a few months after the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history, he signed an executive order with the goal of providing state firefighters with state-of-the-art technology to defeat future blazes before they reach devastating proportions.

This week, Newsom announced the first two contracts awarded for the Wildfire Innovation Sprint, which sprang from the executive-order-established Request for Innovative Ideas (RFII), or "RFI squared.” The protocol does away with the standard RFI practice of asking vendors to respond to specific instructions from the state, allowing vendors greater flexibility in presenting solutions.

The state is awarding Technosylva Inc., based in San Diego and Spain, $383,000 to create a prototype that can predict the path of a wildfire in real time by considering vegetation, weather and topography, the release states. The proof of concept will use a cloud-based modeling service that will help fire, law enforcement and government officials update the public, deploy emergency notifications and begin evacuations.

Cal Fire Deputy Director Michael Mohler said real-time intelligence is vital for the safety of first responders and people as a blaze evolves.

“Being able to run models and predict where that may go will absolutely help,” Mohler said. “Any kind of real-time data that we can feed to the incident is absolutely another tool in the toolbox to protect firefighters, without question.”

Cal Fire worked with the Department of Technology, Department of General Services, among others to pen a problem statement for wildfire management, which focused on detection, prediction and notification. More than 130 vendors submitted proposals to the RFII. The state selected Northrop Grumman Corp. alongside Technosylva.

“For everybody involved in this RFI process, it was very painstaking, with hundreds of personnel hours invested and going through these [proposals] at every level,” Mohler said. “The two that came out were the ones that met those goals that we think, through proof of concept, will benefit the public we serve first and foremost, but also response and operations as far as battling wildfires.”

Northrop Grumman is charged with creating an early wildfire ignition detection system, which will use "remote sensors in the sky" that interface with computer aided dispatch systems. The $1.6 million proof of concept has the goal of notifying first responders of a fire faster than a person reporting the initial flames to 911.

Northrop Grumman and Technosylva will test their solutions in Monterey, Butte, San Luis Obispo and Napa counties, which have seen significant fire activity in the past few years. In 2017, the Atlas, Tubbs, and Nuns fires scorched more than 143,000 acres in Napa and Sonoma counties. The following year, the Camp Fire in Butte County killed 85 people, burned more than 150,000 acres and became the most destructive and deadliest fire in California’s history.

“Former Gov. [Jerry] Brown and now carrying the torch with Gov. Newsom, is very engaged in not only fire prevention, but fire suppression and response,” Mohler said. “This is just another example that this a top priority really for the whole state and the governor is leaned forward, is all in and has given the opportunity for not only our agency, but other state agencies to look at what technology is going to bring as far as advancement in firefighting.”

The RFII process is one way the new governor has invested in disaster mitigation. Newsom has also invested almost $1 billion in the 2019 budget to fund emergency preparedness and response, according to the release.

“This new procurement process leverages one of the things California does best, which is embracing innovation and technology to address some of the most unprecedented challenges California is facing,” Newsom said in a prepared statement. “The use of innovative and groundbreaking technology to bolster response to wildfires will help our firefighters and first responders tremendously, and if we can predict the patterns of a fire, we will be able to save lives and property.”

The contracts run through Dec. 31, at which time the prototypes will be reviewed by Cal Fire to determine if the solutions can be applied statewide.

“We’re proud, we’re excited and we’ll see what the future holds,” Mohler said.

Patrick Groves was a staff writer for Government Technology from 2019 to 2020.