MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, Calif.–The rubber tires of the MQ-9 Reaper roll over the simmering cement runway under the high noon sun near Moreno Valley.
A stiff breeze picks up across the flat plain of the airfield, just enough to force remote flight crews to recalculate take-off speed and direction.
At the same time, California National Guardsmen at five different locations across the state analyze data and schematics gathered in cyberspace, tracking the movement of aerial assets over an active burn exercise taking place 50 miles south at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.
Information Awareness and Assessment, known as IAA, is a critical tool used by firefighters on the ground to analyze fire behavior. Aircraft to include the MQ-9 Reaper, a long-endurance remotely piloted aircraft, fly above fires and deliver precious real-time information to incident commanders.
The first week in June, an IAA exercise took place in preparation for this year’s fire season. Players worked from sites around the state including McClellan Park, Mather Airfield, Joint Force Training Force Base, Los Alamitos, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, and March Air Reserve Base.
“This is a representation of the real world in a controlled environment,” said U.S. Army Sgt. Kelly Hunter, a human intelligence collector assigned to Cal Guard’s 223rd Military Intelligence Battalion. “We are going through all the motions, getting all the players to go through a dry run of what they would do in a real-time incident.”
The players Hunter referenced include partners from NASA, U.S. Forest Service, CAL FIRE, Army and Air National Guard, and other interagency support elements.
“At Camp Pendleton, we have a controlled burn that is being managed by the Camp Pendleton Fire Department and CAL FIRE,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Akil Dangerfield, an intelligence analyst assigned to Cal Guard’s 149th Intelligence Squadron, 195th Wing. “Our aviation assets overhead will be utilizing some of our remote sensing capabilities to provide motion video feed for our IA coordinators and CAL FIRE incident managers here at McClellan.”
Each year, fires impact California across the state with a growing cost in lives impacted or lost, infrastructure destroyed and property damaged.
“We are looking to assess any strengths and weaknesses between the organizations, things we can improve on before fires season gets here,” said Battalion Chief Tom Webb, a CAL FIRE Sacramento partner. “Also we get to meet the people from different agencies, so there is a face to a name kind of contact. When we come to work in the field, we have a working relationship.”
While the MQ-9 Reaper and other aircraft take flight to map the fire perimeter, countless members of the joint operational team study digital imagery and examine second-by-second information streaming to them in real-time. As this multi-agency conglomeration of professionals work through their processes, a common operating environment develops providing an up-to-date tracking system of the developing incident.
“These kinds of exercises are incredibly important to do with the military, Department of Defense, and the other civilian and civil authorities, so we can create that cohesion,” Hunter said.
The visual and environmental information provided by all the different agencies presents a better picture in how incident managers and first responders can tackle an emergent situation, she described. Events like this build well-staffed and well-trained teams that can execute any kind of stressful or chaotic situation with skill and confidence.
“We want to make sure that we are maximizing awareness for the incident commanders and first responders to not only free up their resources, but to also allow them to act as efficiently as possible,” said Dangerfield. “We’re using our assets… to provide the most to our first responders and hopefully save lives and property.”