The U.S. Forest Service has deployed land mobile radios on the fireline since the Vietnam War, and the equipment hasn't changed much over the years.

But Colin Watts, assistant director for land mobile radio at the Missoula Technology and Development Center, said the future is about to change.

“The future is digital and the future is data,” Watts said. “Real-time telemetry and data management is going to be a growing concern. The ability to extend that data envelope into the forest where we operate is key to us in the future.”

Watts and other experts in firefighting technology led Sen. Steve Daines and FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr on a tour of the Technology and Development Program, where the next generation of firefighting equipment is developed and tested by the Forest Service.

That includes the performance metrics of firefighting aircraft to better inform their use, and the development of new retardant to slow advancing flames. It also includes vital communication links, making the Forest Service the largest government user of spectrum behind the U.S. military.

“At the FCC, our biggest priority is closing the digital divide – making sure every American, regardless of where they live, has a fair shot at next-generation connectivity,” Carr told the Missoula Current. “We're seeing that here in regards to public safety communications. We learn a lot on the road and we'll take that back to D.C. and try and get it across the finish line.”

Permitting the deployment of broadband on federal lands has been a challenge, Watts and others told Carr. And licensing dozens of radio frequencies a week during the fire season has its challenges, along with building the radio towers to send the signals.

Daines, who also toured a Missoula telehealth facility earlier in the day, said communication is key to the future, be it health care or firefighting safety and efficiencies.

“As we talk about the Forest Service being one of the largest consumers of spectrum in the government, the importance of communication is critical when we're in a situation of fighting fires,” he said. “To have (Carr) here firsthand to hear from the experts is a voice he can bring back to D.C. If there's a thing we need, it's more of a Montana voice in Washington.”

Sen. Steve Daines, right, and FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr tour of the Missoula Technology and Development Center in Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
Sen. Steve Daines, right, and FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr tour of the Missoula Technology and Development Center in Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Stronger communication has also led to a reduction in the deployment of fire shelters in recent years, though Tony Petrilli and other researchers are still working to improve their ability to withstand a running fire.

Petrilli, a fire equipment specialist, said his team is working with the Langley Research Center and NASA to improve today's fire shelters. As it stands, he said, any boost in performance tends to lead to an increase in weight.

And for an overburdened firefighter, weight matters.

“The trade-off in increased weight and bulk wasn't worth the increased weight in protection,” Petrilli said. “But we've also had a pretty substantial decrease in the number of fire shelters deployed. Our numbers are down and we're doing a much better job of taking risk assessments into account and putting firefighters in a position where they can be successful and still be at low risk.”

Daines, who described the Technology and Development Program in place in Missoula as one of the nation's “best-kept secrets,” looks to bring the views of its experts back to the nation's capital.

“There's no better place than Missoula to be doing the work of finding ways to protect our firefighters – looking for better practices in the field for our smokejumpers, safety protection equipment, how we can make fire retardant drops more efficient,” he said. “And there's nothing like injecting some common sense into how we can protect the men and women on the front lines than having that experience here.”