Using Existing Infrastructure to Reduce the Cost of Automated Wildfire Detection

The inability to stop the growing number of destructive wildfires each year demands that a broader evaluation of technology-enabled detection and response systems. And increasingly businesses or government entities are investigating automated fire detection technology to protect lives and resources. However they typically want to deploy these systems as efficiently and resourcefully as possible.  One way to reduce the cost of these systems is to use as much existing infrastructure as possible. Here are some common cost-saving integration approaches.

Assessing What Automated Detection Resources are Available

There are four main types of automated wildfire detection technologies:

1. Ground-based visual systems

2. Ground-based non-visual sensors

3. Manned and unmanned aircraft

4. Satellites

There are advantages and disadvantages to operating each system. They not only vary in reliability and efficiency, but also in terms of installation and maintenance cost.

Terrestrial visible light systems

These systems monitor the presence of smoke and fire using the visible light spectrum via a video camera. Some automated detection systems require specialized cameras, while others can integrate with a variety of general cameras already used for surveillance. The use of existing cameras can dramatically decrease the overall implementation cost of automated detection systems. These systems are often "tower-mounted" and continuously operated near potential fire sources. They can provide both instant fire notification and feedback relevant to ongoing firefighting operations after detection.

Terrestrial non-visible light sensors

Non-visual sensing systems typically use infrared light to sense the presence of a fire. The primary advantage they have over visual systems is that they can sense heat and fire even in occluded conditions, such as through smoke, fog or rain or at night. On the other hand, these systems will not detect smoke, the first sign of a fire, and consequently may delay fire detection until high heat or open flame is produced. Additionally, the special infrared sensors required are more expensive than visual light spectrum cameras and make it less likely for general purpose security cameras (which are often already installed and/or are less expensive to deploy) to integrate easily with this technology.

Manned and Unmanned Aircraft

Aircraft surveillance has the advantage of monitoring areas at high elevations and reporting information about wide areas affected by fires, which can assist in the fire termination process (assuming the weather is suitable for flying and low-lying clouds are not obstructing a pilot's vision). Unfortunately, ongoing operations can prove costly, with agencies paying for fuel or hiring pilots.


Satellites orbiting the Earth can monitor large areas on a twenty-four hour basis, provided by polar orbit systems like NOAA/AVHRR, MODIS and ENVISAT. The drawbacks to this technology are the extremely high cost (to purchase the satellite and pay trained personnel to operate it and interpret the data) and inability to continuously monitor specific areas. (Orbital limitations make it possible to pass by a fire every four or more hours.)

While each system has its advantages, it is still advisable to inventory what is available and use the inputs from each of these systems if they exist already, in order to lower system deployment costs. Many different communication protocols may exist, but there are also methods to create interoperability or data conversion among them.

Using Existing Infrastructure
Fortunately, existing infrastructure can be used during automated detection installation to help drive down the costs of integrating this technology:

For those detection sensors which use land-based, line of sight spotting, integration typically first requires an assessment of  the area needing to be monitored that can be accurately surveyed without generating a lot of “false alarms.”  System designers will typically look for existing towers for the potential mounting of visible light cameras.  They may choose to use power transmission towers, watch towers, cell phone towers, above ground storage tanks or any permanent structure with a clear view of the area that needs to be monitored.  Existing communications towers may offer better visibility than manned lookouts (at heights of 60 to 100 meters compared to 30 meters for manned lookouts).  Additionally, if no towers exist, new unmanned lookouts can be built at taller heights and lower costs than manned lookouts can. 

The primary advantage of using terrestrial systems is the cost-savings accrued from the use of existing surveillance cameras.  Integrating video detection systems with video surveillance systems already in place reduces the costs associated with installation and maintenance.  It can also increase system reliability due to additional use and attention paid to the equipment.  Terrestrial visual systems can use security cameras or any other visible light spectrum monitoring cameras already in place­–virtually any camera made for outdoor use.  Terrestrial non-visual systems can use any infrared cameras that have already been purchased. 

Operational Data Centers
Many government entities or private companies interested in automated detection already have existing public safety operational data centers.  These can often accept fire monitoring as part of their ongoing function. Operational data centers are places at the end user's location where their surveillance data is received and interpreted.  This center is responsible for the continuous monitoring of data and notifying the appropriate personnel in the event of an emergency.  If these centers exist, entities can save money by using current personnel to continue staffing the cameras and interpreting the data streams.  Even if a data interpretation center doesn't exist onsite, entities may have the cost-saving integration option to reuse existing dispatch/911 centers, or possibly even fire “stations” where first responders often have time to perform non-field functions.  For fire detection, these centers will confirm alarms, notify rescue teams, and continue to survey affected areas during the response effort and communicate valuable information to assist with fire termination.

Networks and Computers
New computers and monitors need not be purchased to implement automated fire detection.  The right integration company can use any computers with relatively recent operating systems.  Many existing networks can also be used, such as local area or long-haul data networks.  Wide area data networks could include fiber optic or older copper or coaxial type of wired networks carrying digitally formatted signals.  The alternative to using these networks is to create wireless radio data networks, which may be the most viable option in remote areas and/or where fire might damage the physical data transmission vehicle (such as fiber optic, coax or copper wires).  Alarm interfaces such as auto notification direct to cell phones in the event of a fire can also be reused if they exist, for example for volunteer fire departments.

The right automated detection company will have the flexibility to work with a user's existing resources in cost-saving, efficient ways that make this critical technology more accessible to those who need it.  Today government agencies, utility companies and pipeline companies all benefit from automated detection technologies.  Because automated detection has the potential to significantly reduce the effect of wildfires all over the world, saving valued infrastructure and lives, it is important for it to be available in as many locations as possible.  Flexible, user-centered automated detection companies have begun to make this valuable widespread implementation possible.