Improving safety and accountability in wildland fire
E-IAP is a product I and my three classmates designed as our graduate capstone project. I led the design and prototypes of the map navigation, roll call, and task navigation flows. I participated in every single phase of the design process since the project was very challenging and high-stakes.
The concept and design have been validated by the Northwest Incident Management 12. And E-IAP has been recognized as the best capstone project in the program history by the MHCI+D founding faculty and interim director professor Axel Roesler.
The project has been forwarded to the government sales team, who immediately started a strategy session about how they could validate and mobilize this project in the California fire chain of command. They have connected a bunch of dots with fire captains and Lobbying groups and are putting together a communication package that they intend to put on Governor Gavin Newsom's desk.
Personnel safety and operations are compromised.
Wildland fires are becoming more intense and frequent at an unprecedented speed and scale across the globe due to climate change, increased development in the wildland-urban interface, and accumulation of fuel loads from prior fire suppression efforts. However, responders still rely on a traditional process in fighting wildland fires.
All the critical information for each operational day is communicated through this paper document called the Incident Action Plan (IAP). However, it is created the day before and doesn’t get updated throughout the day. This leads to decision-making with limited information, putting personnel safety and operations at risk.
Incident Action Plan of Batterman Road Fire
A wildland fire management platform that provides real-time data to improve personnel safety and operations. See full design documentation.
Now, let me walk you through how E-IAP helps incident management teams in their typical day of operation.
Responders review the up-to-date ICS forms under the menu and live map to communicate objectives, assignments, and fire weather and behavior forecast, etc at the beginning of an operational shift.
Division Roll Call
Division Supervisors check in personnel and equipment that they are responsible for. Throughout the day, if anything changes, Division Supervisors can update it and the new information would be pushed to the management team instantly.
Navigate to Assignments
After the roll call, Division Supervisors can tap on the direction button on the top bar to navigate to their assignments to avoid getting lost.
2. During operation
Personnel & Resource Tracking
The map is fluid, aiming to provide different information tailored to different needs. Division Supervisors can track personnel and equipment by tapping them on the map.
Personnel on the field often need to share information to update the group on situational awareness. A commented-photo update shared with others helps disseminate that information promptly and accurately.
3. Urgent Resource Request
Getting and receiving alerts between the incident management team and the personnel on the field is crucial since the weather and fire behavior can change abruptly, posing immediate dangers to responders on the field.
Division Supervisors can send requests for more resources to cope with changing situation using the integrated ICS-213 resource request form. In this case, they are requesting an airtanker to drop fire retardant.
When the request is submitted, the Operations Section Chiefs receive a notification. They are able to directly review the details of the request from their mobile device and approve it.
With the airtanker on its way, Division Supervisors can track its progress on the map towards the drop points by tapping on it and selecting the follow (eye) icon on the interaction wheel. On the right, they will see information such as its destination and the estimated time of arrival.
What is the current practice of wildland fire management?
Research to understand the complex world of wildland fire management spanned the entire project - we began with secondary research, including literature & policy review, and competitive analysis of existing products in wildland fire management. For primary research, we conducted 24 interviews with subject matter experts and performed ethnographic and observational research on two field trips to wildland fire incidents. See full research report.
100+ Literature & Policy Review
Managing wildland fires is a complex task that involves multiple agencies and people at the local, state, and federal level. We conduct literature & policy review to understand existing policies, guidelines, best practices, and standard operating procedures (SOPs) for communications in wildfire response.
Policy documents, training materials, and serious incident investigation reports of wildland fire.
8 Competitive Analysis
Conducting competitive analysis helped us find out the gaps in the market and pain points the users of these products are currently facing. All these will deepen our understanding of the problem space and guide us in finding design opportunities. See full competitive analysis report.
Snapshot of our competitive analysis report.
24 SME Interviews
The information collected through secondary research is limited. Besides, we were uncertain about whether what we learned truly reflects what has been done in real life. Therefore, we conducted semi-structured interviews to collect more information and validate our understanding.
The subject matter experts we interviewed cover all the sections of the incident command system.
2 Field Research
There were three goals for these trips:
1. Putting all the knowledge we learned into
context to deepen and correct our
2. Bridging the knowledge gap that we were
unable to obtain from previous research.
3. Observing how incident action plans are
created and implemented.
Me and my teammates in the Central Washington Interagency Communication Center and the Incident command post of the Batterman Road Fire.
What did we learn from research?
Environment is dynamic
“It is a very dynamic environment. The maps that you get in the morning [are] totally different in two hours anyways... You have to use your own situational awareness and experience to determine what is actually going on the ground.”
Benefits of real-time info
Real-time information has the following benefits:
1. Better situational awareness to adapt
2. Better communication
3. Improved decision-making
4. Decreased risks
Tech as key enabler
More and more technology is being accepted and expected in wildland fire, despite challenges with connectivity and implementation.
What are the potential solutions?
We brainstormed 80 ideas to address how we could leverage technology to improve the safety of wildland fire management. After affinitizing these ideas, we got 30 unique ideas, which were further categorized into four types:
1. GIS-based platforms
3. Smart tracking devices
4. Warning systems
30 unique ideas affinitized from 80 initial ideas.
Which solution can best solve the problem?
To help surface the solution that can best resolve the problem, I co-hosted a design workshop with three subject matter experts and walked them through our 30 ideas. Among all the ideas, they were most captivated by the digitized IAP (incident action plan), which is a digital fire management platform that replaces the current paper IAP. They saw the potential for it to be adaptable and powerful in contrast with the current process.
Three design workshop participants and the digitized IAP concept they picked.
I then helped participants brainstorm and concretize their ideal digitized IAP with the worksheet I designed. By creating a story of how the digital IAP can be utilized, our participants came up with multiple features that they wanted to include, including the ability to see graphical representation of resources on the map, real-time information, and weather info, etc.
Three worksheets our participants filled out in the design workshop.
How was Incident Action Plan (IAP) created and implemented?
To gain first-hand experience on how the IAP was created, distributed, and used, our team conducted two field studies with the Northwest 12 Incident Management Team and the dispatch center in Wenatchee, Washington.
Me and my teammates in the Incident command post of the Batterman Road Fire and the Central Washington Interagency Communication Center.
There, we observed and shadowed teams to learn the IAP process, how resources were requested and approved, how they influenced the daily operations, the technologies that they currently used, and processes they wish were improved.
Reimagining wildland fire management experience.
Based on our research and experience in the field, we sketched out a storyboard to reimagined how the E-IAP would function at a wildland fire incident. This is also where we decided our product would be tablet and mobile-based because these are the technologies we observed being used.
Storyboard my teammates and I sketched to explore key functionalities and user experiences.
During this process, we identified critical components of the IAP that were important for safety and accountability. These included
1. Being able to visually see assignments, weather and fire behavior on the map
2. Requesting, approving, and tracking resources that included equipment and personnel
3. Roll call function to account for people assigned to that day’s operations
How do users navigate between features?
With the critical components we identified, we brainstormed flows that aligned with responders' use cases and sequences that can help them easily and smoothly navigate between different features. Below are the information architecture of the homepage, menu, and map navigation.
How can we simplify the navigation?
Once we identified the key flows and experiences, we knew that we needed a usable and simple navigation to allow users to easily access and identify these important features because responders are always under tremendous pressure out on the field.
Therefore, we made several iterations of the main menu navigation, including
1. top and left navigation
2. top navigation only
3. left navigation only
4. a floating horizontal navigation
Top and left navigation
Top navigation only
Left navigation only
Floating top navigation
In the end, we settled on a floating vertical navigation for the following reasons:
1. The horizontal navigation was harder to reach and navigate to on a tablet.
2. Maximizing the real estate of map is critical since that was the primary way for users to visualize, receive, and distribute information. So instead of having a menu that took up the entire side, we opted for a minimal floating menu.
3. Because of the specific needs of wildland fire management, menus with only icons did not provide enough affordances for what they were so we needed a menu that labeled each icon.
Floating left and map navigation
Validating the concepts and usability.
Once we established a navigation frame and the key flows, we set out to test this with three participants to evaluate the concept and usability of E-IAP. Here are the major feedback we gained:
Too many unnecessary items in the left navigation bar, compromising responders' speed to locate the one they need.
Responders are used to using names instead of profile images to identify other responders.
Some responders are unable to identify the meanings of map symbols.
Responders want to have the ability to interact with the map items directly.
Responders usually refer to these official documents by their numbers instead of names.
Based on the feedback, we came up with the following improvements.
Move the less frequently used items to the secondary navigation to simplify navigation and speed up tasks.
Replace profile images with initials to help responders identify others faster.
A wheel shows up when tapping on the personnel and equipment to provide four actions for users to interact with.
Show names of the map symbols upon tapping to help responders identify the unknown symbols.
The official forms' numbers are added to help responders identify the documents easier.
E-IAP concept video
Continue to flesh out more details
Wildland fire management is a complex problem that usually takes years to design for. We've maximized the time we had to conduct thorough research and build up the key flows of our solution. A lot of things still need to be done. For example, we need to design the drag and drop interface for personnel reassignment, request and approve multiple resources at once, and add assignment and status checking of responders.
Integration with dispatch and weather platforms
One insight we gained from research is that there is a lot of information available but the lack of interoperability makes it challenging to transfer accurate information between different groups. Therefore, to make E-IAP more usable, we need to integrate with existing platforms such as dispatch software WildCAD and iSight and some weather forest platforms that are currently being used.
Experiencing > secondary research
You don't know what it's like until you are there. We learned more being at the incident command post and in the field for one day than weeks of researching online. I still remember the day when I got the short notice about this fire incident and the opportunity to observe it in Washington State. I booked the flight right away and showed up at the airport in two hours because I believe the best way to design a good product is to experience your users' lives! That's why I didn't want to miss this opportunity even during the covid time.
This project would not be possible without teamwork! I really enjoy working with my amazing teammates Fontayne, Maisie, and Joan. We all want to make a truly usable product that can make firefighters' job easier and safer. We don't want to see more firefighters die because of the limitation of the current process and communication failure. That is our original drive to explore and seek solutions for this problem space. In the past two quarters, we spent days and nights learning as much and quickly about this problem space as we could by leveraging all the resources we had. We firmly believe, one day, firefighting wildland fire will no longer be a dangerous job.
Us in the Batterman Road Fire with Division Supervisor Jeff and Liaison Officer Scott.