Empowering Emergency Crews with the Cloud

When a fire strikes, every second counts. Effective fire management is an essential part of fire-fighting strategies to minimise damage to land, property and loss of life, as well as safeguard the environment. Forest fires are particularly challenging for the south of Europe. Almost 7% of fire ignitions in Portugal, Spain, France, Italy and Greece result in 85% of burnt areas. Even countries like Germany, Belgium and Switzerland experience forest fires.

Being able to predict where a fire is most likely to strike is vital during wildfire seasons across the globe. However, spatiotemporal calculations using different geographical datasets often rely on huge computer resources. Civil protection agencies do not typically have these resources or the know-how to operate complex IT systems for seamless fire risk predictions and management. An innovative approach to using cloud computing for predicting and managing wildfires has been pioneered at the University of the Aegean in Greece.

Professor Kalabokidis and his team have developed a system that uses weather, topography, vegetation data and digital images to predict the spread of forest fires, giving fire fighters a one-hour head start on the blaze. It also provides forecasts of the risk of fires up to five days in advance. Their wildfire prediction application combines Microsoft’s Bing Maps, Microsoft Silverlight (a front-end application for multimedia, graphics, and animation), and Windows Azure, for managing the cloud computing resources at the back end.

"Around the world, there are many fire risk algorithms being developed in places like the U.S., Canada, Russia and Southern Europe. What makes our tool different is it provides a quantitative and systematic approach, based on Geographic Information Systems, whereas, for example, Greece’s fire risk scheme is qualitative or empirical based. Our model can predict fire risks at an hourly rate too”, said Kostas Kalabokidis.

Hands-on training sessions at operational centres in Mytilene (Lesvos) and Thessaloniki, Greece, have enabled fire-fighting and emergency crews to see the cloud in action and start using it in real-world situations. “It was an important opportunity to see how cloud computing offers a prompt solution for fire departments tackling wildfires, demonstrating both the operational advantages and cost efficiencies provided by the VENUS-C solution”, said General Vasileios Toulikas of the Greek Fire Brigade in Thessaloniki.

Governments operating this system can plan their actions more efficiently without the need to own, maintain or operate the physical machines used to make complex calculations taking into account the vegetation of an area, topography, socio-economic parameters and, of course, the weather. Emergency crews and support organisations cannot only simulate what’s happening, they can change global and local parameters and perform a ‘what-if’ analysis by changing local weather conditions to predict alternative scenarios. "European countries are trying to develop a unified wildfire risk strategy. Our new service can play a part in contributing to this bigger picture”, explained Kostas Kalabokidis.