California Fire Watchers Tap Wi-Fi For Blaze Control

The Laguna coastal "Fire Watch" system eventually will have five strategically located cameras hooked into the city's Wi-Fi network.

Demonstrating the increasing utility of municipal wireless networks for public-safety applications, a local fire-prevention group has deployed cameras linked up to an existing Wi-Fi system to allow remote monitoring of fire-prone areas near the affluent coastal enclave of Laguna Beach, Calif.

Known as the Laguna coastal "Fire Watch" system, the video-surveillance system eventually will have five strategically located cameras hooked into the city's Wi-Fi network, which was deployed by Laguna Broadcast Network, a local ISP, using equipment from Tropos Networks. The system is being paid for with grant funding from the National Fire Plan, under the auspices of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the California Fire Safe Council. A local group, the Greater Laguna Coast Fire Safe Council -- headed by local residents who lost their homes in a massive 1993 blaze that destroyed almost 400 homes -- spearheaded the Fire Watch installation, working with a local company called Pro 911.

Using the cameras -- two fixed and three on tilt/swivel mounts atop collapsible fiberglass poles -- the network will survey more than 20 square miles of parks, wilderness, and open space that surround Laguna Beach. The hills above the picturesque seaside town of around 24,000 are covered in often dense scrub and chaparral that is prone to burning during times of dry conditions and the intense Santa Ana winds that plague much of Southern California.

Laguna Beach is about 80 miles north of San Diego, where raging wildfires consumed more than 1,500 homes and caused up to $2 billion in damage last week.

The new cameras are "just a piece of the mosaic," said David Horne, founder and chair of the Laguna Coast Fire Safe Council, who is a professor of marketing at Cal State Long Beach and one of those who lost his home in the '93 conflagration. "There's nothing that will completely prevent them, but everything you can do to improve the odds of limiting a major wildfire is worth doing."

While the early hopes for blanketing entire cities with ubiquitous Wi-Fi coverage have proven illusory, the local-area wireless networking technology is proving quite useful in public-safety applications, particularly disasters where other forms of communication are unavailable. Immediately after recent calamities, including Hurricane Katrina and the Mississippi River bridge collapse in Minneapolis, emergency personnel used Wi-Fi to more effectively communicate when other networks, including cellular ones, were down.

Craig Settles, a wireless networking consultant, released a report last May entitled "When Crisis Hits the Fan -- Muni Wireless to the Rescue." "In spite of Katrina, the Minneapolis bridge collapse, and the fires in southern California," said Settles, "not enough attention and credibility is given to the roles these networks can play in response to -- or even prevention of -- a major man-made or natural disaster."

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