Preventing Another Firestorm

After the California wildfires, wireless security is key to rebuilding

The task of rebuilding has begun after the Southern California wildfires left nearly a half-million acres scorched last year. With more than 1,500 homes lost and well over $1 billion in insured losses, one of the greatest challenges for those starting over will be getting adequate insurance against future fires. If insurers balk at taking another chance on areas long prone to such outbreaks, the possibility of restoring the residential communities is dim. However, innovations in IP-based wireless surveillance cameras may prove key to effectively managing the risks.

In Laguna Beach, south of Los Angeles, this technology is already in place, adding a powerful tool to enhance community fire watch efforts. The Laguna FireSafe Council was created after the 1993 firestorms destroyed more than 300 homes with a combined loss in excess of $500 million. By the mid- 1990s, the organization created the Red Flag patrol, a group of more than 100 volunteers who patrol the region during high-risk periods when dry conditions and the Santa Ana winds make for a potentially deadly combination. Working with the local fire department, the volunteers have provided extra lookout in and around the area.

Adapting an Idea
The idea for this application began with a different installation. Three years ago, Pro911 Systems installed a series of Sony IPELA® SNC-RZ25N cameras linked by a Tropos® wireless network to serve as a force extender to aid the patrol along Laguna and Newport beaches. The system provides immediate, real-time access to what’s happening and allows rescuers to arrive on the scene at incidents faster and better than possible through previous methods. With the wireless surveillance system, the staff can zoom in to quickly assess the situation and send out appropriate help immediately.

The combination of cameras and a wireless network opens up new dimensions to video surveillance, enabling applications unimaginable with the old CCTV infrastructure. The ability to position and access cameras anywhere creates flexible tools that effectively allow eyeball situations whenever and wherever. Not long ago, the idea of wireless video seemed distant given the bandwidth requirements. But the mesh network is a robust broadband conduit that is a perfect match with the camera’s efficient use of the network’s capacity. Together, wireless video surveillance is suddenly a reality with tremendous, unexplored possibilities.

After this introduction to the technology, the idea of using IP-based wireless video surveillance for firewatchers seems obvious. Laguna Beach residents are acutely aware of the fire risks. In 2005, users began exploring how to use it as a force extender for the Red Flag patrol. Now, the Laguna FireSafe Council, working with Pro911 Systems and the Laguna Broadcast Network, a local wireless broadband provider, has demonstrated the proof-of-concept with an initial implementation. Funds from a $10,000 grant from the Bureau of Land Management have paid for two fixedangle cameras strategically positioned at the edge of the wildland-urban interface where wildfires typically start. The best of what’s called “woo-wee watching” will soon come from additional cameras that will be positioned atop 16-foot poles. These will be self-contained systems that operate off solar-power-charged battery packs in the more remote areas.

What the system adds is extra eyes on the most crucial areas. Local fire officials also can access the system.

Challenges to Implementation
The major challenges for full implementation of the system aren’t technological. Laguna Broadcast Network’s high-speed Tropos wireless mesh extends throughout the area, making it easy to receive highquality video imaging from the IPELA robotic cameras anywhere in the region. The SNC-RZ25N’s selectable JPEG and MPEG-4 compression allows for optimal use of the bandwidth. Wireless capabilities come through a wireless card installed in the unit’s industry-standard Compact Flash® card slot.

Instead, much of the work involves educating residents and officials about what this offers, as well as answering their concerns. First, homeowners within range of the system are sometimes apprehensive about maintaining their privacy. This is easily addressed since the Sony cameras are equipped with a feature called “privacy-zone masking.” Private property within the field of view can be blocked from the camera’s PTZ range. With this, only the public spaces are within reach.

Another challenge has been getting permits from county park officials. Since this is a new concept, this has required an educational outreach to assure them that the impact on the wildlife areas is minimal. In fact, an unexpected, added benefit comes with the ability to use the system during downtime to better understand the wildlife inhabiting these areas.

Widespread Deployment
Of course, following the recent destruction, the need for such systems is abundantly clear. The current implementation does not record visual data, but that may change to help deter arson and to investigate incidents if they should happen.

The initial experience implementing a fire watch system using wireless IP-based surveillance technology to support the Laguna FireSafe Council lays the groundwork for widespread adoption. Aside from the added protection this can provide, the investment in this technology may be the most cost-effective to assure insurance providers that such advances provide the necessary means to control fire risks. In fact, the cost for such systems is minuscule in the context of potential multibillion dollar losses. Public support also comes with the understanding that getting any coverage may well be contingent on such systems or that there may be a return on investment through reduced insurance rates. As the ability for these systems becomes apparent, they should catch on like, well, wildfire.

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    April 2019


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