Over six months, we worked with stakeholders in wildfire management to design E-IAP: a digitized version of a critical paper document called the Incident Action Plan (IAP) that teams use every day to guide operations on large wildfires. E-IAP improves safety and accountability on the fireline by providing live updates, improved access to information, and streamlined processes.
Our work took us to two wildfires in Washington with the Northwest 12 Incident Management Team and was guided by many others who have spent decades fighting wildfires. The work has been shared with those in the wildfire community and the California Office of Emergency Services to make the concept a reality.
Incident Management Teams (IMTs) managing large wildfires rely on a paper document called the Incident Action Plan (IAP) to communicate critical information about the fire and the day's operational plan.
This paper IAP is labour-intensive and lacks real-time data. It cannot be updated as the situation changes, leading to decision-making with limited and outdated information, putting personnel at risk and making it difficult to use resources effectively.
These photos from our research field trip show how the IAP is used throughout a 16-hour operational day, and just how manual current processes are. (Photos by Joan Williams)
E-IAP (Electronic Incident Action Plan) facilitates communication with personnel in the field, improves situational awareness and supports informed decision-making. Designed for mobile devices, it provides immediate incident information to everyone on the fire to make better use of resources and cut down on inefficient, manual processes.
Visual display of critical information including location of personnel, resources, and weather information.
Supervisors can account for their team members and allocated resources, manage work assignments, and easily locate them in the field.
Submit and track resource requests, with on-demand status updates and estimated time of arrival.
Responders in the field can capture and submit photos back to the Incident Command Post to contribute to real-time data collection and improve understanding of the fire.
Incident Management Teams can send out urgent messages to leaders and responders in the field.
Our initial design prompt was to improve interagency access to critical data in wildland fire. It was inspired by a request for proposal (RFP) from the California Office of Emergency Services (CalOES) that recognized the difficulty of sharing timely incident information between all the agencies involved at the federal, state, and local levels.
We immediately identified that this was about communication of information, and that we also needed to understand the complexity of wildland fire to design something that would actually be used.
We reviewed existing policies and incident reports and conducted competitive analysis of existing products to understand current processes and technology used in the wildfire management.
Use the dropdowns to learn why we chose each method, and click the images above to view samples from our analysis.
We conducted 24 semi-structured interviews with professionals in wildland fire and emergency response, including incident commanders, firefighters, dispatchers, and administrative officials.
Speaking to them revealed the true stories of what happens on the ground, which can often differ from official policies and procedures. We also learned the emotional and mental state of responders in these high-stress situations, and where they felt improvements were strongly needed.
We ended up with an overwhelming amount of research data that was incredibly difficult to process. I led analysis and synthesis by setting up a thematic analysis framework to systematically code transcribed interviews with common themes and query the data to look for patterns.
After affinity mapping, we synthesized several common challenges and priorities that needed to be addressed immediately:
Safety of people is the top priority in wildfire management. A major challenge in keeping people safe is the lack of accurate personnel tracking, i.e. knowing exactly where your people are in the field. By providing real-time personnel locations, we could help keep them safe.
Wildfire situations change quickly and the information available doesn't always keep up. Responders need more access to live data to avoid impaired decision-making and safety risks.
Although technology exists to improve access to data, there are many barriers to change. Traditional processes are still being used due to resistance to change, unfamiliarity with technology, lack of standardization, lack of funding, and remote connectivity issues. A solution needs to keep these factors in mind.
Since safety comes before all else on the fireline, we knew that it also needed to be the ultimate goal for whatever we designed. Our research insights clearly indicated that the lack of real-time situational information and personnel tracking was a hinderance to safety, so we refined our design challenge to the following:
We brainstormed over 90 ideas that leveraged technology to improve the safety of wildland fire management through real-time information.
Ideas ranged from map-based software, add-on attachments for radios and cameras, smart clothing, tracking devices, warning systems, and even robots.
Still new to the world of wildland fire, we designed a participatory workshop for three participants from our interviews to properly evaluate our design concepts. With their many years of experience fighting wildfires, they had the knowledge to speak to whether or not an idea was actually desirable, feasible, and viable in practice.
After the discussion, participants wrote a story depicting their favourite concept being used in context. These stories provided the details we needed to make a decision and move forward with the design phase. We gave them a worksheet (see picture) to guide their storytelling around a few key questions:
The story that stood out was about a dynamic, electronic version of the Incident Action Plan that would streamline existing processes and help use limited resources more effectively. It would have immediate impact on daily operations and widespread importance to all personnel on the fire. Our design would provide flexibility and adaptability to the IAP that would ultimately increase safety for personnel in the field.
Together, we envisioned the product as a living data source with the following functions:
Map-based data that can be quickly understood in the field
Track resources, teams, and work assignments as they change
Generate related reports and eliminate current use of paper
To gain first-hand experience in how the current IAP is created and used, our team conducted two field studies with the Northwest 12 Incident Management Team (NW 12 IMT) and a dispatch centre in Wenatchee, WA. We learned that:
The IAP is integrated in key planning and operational moments throughout the day, both at the main command post and out in the field. This meant that we needed to design for multiple user roles (e.g. commanders and field operators), and a full spectrum of scenarios it would be used in.
Our initial research led us to believe that wildland firefighting is stuck in the dark ages due to systemic issues and resistance to technology. We did observe heavy paper use, but also an incredible amount of technology, including tablets and drones!
This validated the idea that an electronic IAP can be successfully adopted and inspired us to integrate existing paper/ manual processes into our design.
We decided to base the information architecture of the E-IAP on the paper version, using the same code names and information fields of existing forms. Following familiar structures increases the chances the product will be adopted easily, and allows easy data export into other existing data systems.
Low fidelity sketches helped to flush out the overall structure of the platform.
Getting this right was important due to the complexity of the product and training challenges often seen in wildland firefighting.
We developed the sketches into mid-fidelity wireframes on Figma to explore different designs of the main menu and controls.
Iterations included structured navigation bars that would constantly be available, as well as floating navigation in different orientations.
Using mid-fidelity prototypes of all key interaction flows, we conducted usability tests with an operations section chief and a training officer.
Taking the feedback from the usability tests, our instructors, and advisors, we created four iterations of high fidelity prototypes.
We also received feedback from NW 12 IMT on a second field trip to the Whitmore Fire in Washington.
Some major improvements:
We see the safety benefits that this product could bring, as well as streamlining our planning process, creating efficiencies, and reducing costs for wildland fire...
- Bob Shindelar, Incident Commander, NW 12 IMT
E-IAP provides proof-of-concept for the utility of a real-time platform that combines visual incident information, detailed personnel tracking, and resource planning and management. In our visits to the Incident Command Post, the need for updated integrated systems is clear. Our presence and design work were a catalyst for exciting conversations about the potential of such a platform and a desire for change.
We shared this work with our contacts in wildland fire, developers of existing tactical operations tools (e.g. ATAK), and our advising design agency, with plans to bring the conceptual work to the California Office of Emergency Services and the Governor's office. Please get in touch if you would like a copy of the research report and design documentation!
A product like this usually takes years before it arrives in the hands of first responders. It comes as no surprise that there is still work to do before it will be ready to deploy to Incident Management Teams across the nation.
Here are three immediate areas for further exploration:
One of the primary concerns from everyone we spoke with is the lack of connectivity in remote areas that wildland firefighters are often in. I want to design workarounds to combat connectivity issues, such as offline modes, syncing data to other users moving back to an area with coverage, and more.
Before it can be truly successful in streamlining processes and saving time, E-IAP needs to be able to share data with other platforms that Incident Management Teams already use. Another flow is needed to export the data in the E-IAP to the standardized ICS forms that are used to report information back to government agencies.
The next round of testing for E-IAP should be in the field to determine how safe and easy it is to use in extreme weather conditions or while wearing safety equipment. Live testing will reveal interaction issues and additional requirements, such as requesting multiple resources at once or adjusting personnel for the next day.
We learned more visiting the Incident Command Post for one day than in weeks of researching online. After our field trip, we had to reconsider some of the major findings from our remote research, such as the fact that lots of technology is already being used on the fire line. It also helped us build crucial relationships to collaborate with our users, a key to success in this complicated environment.
Although we designed a digital platform, it is important to consider how it will it work with existing methods of communication (such as radio), and how it could change existing procedures throughout the operational day. While our hope is that E-IAP eliminates a lot of manual labour and saves time, there is still much to consider about adoption and integration.