In Laguna Beach, a seaside community of approximately 24,000 in southern California, citizens have taken charge of fire prevention and detection. The Greater Laguna Coast Fire Safe Council, a non-profit community organization formed by residents who lost their homes in a major fire in 1993, have spearheaded deployment of a wireless video surveillance network to monitor and detect fire activity in hard-to-reach wildland areas.
On Oct. 27, 1993, a fire started in the wilderness of the city’s Laguna Canyon Road and spread quickly, destroying 391 homes, damaging 645 others and burning approximately 16,680 acres in its path. Following the fire, a group of residents, led by David Horne, now founding chair of the Greater Laguna Coast Fire Safe Council and a professor of marketing at California State University-Long Beach, banded together to share information about insurance settlements and to help coordinate the city’s clean-up efforts.
“The meetings began mainly as a platform to encourage communication about what we were hearing from our insurance companies among those of us whose homes were destroyed. Having the meetings gave us a collective feeling that we were not on our own in this, and that everyone was going through the same thing,” Horne says.
During one meeting, Horne learned that one attendee’s insurance policy had been cancelled by their provider. “At that point, I began to think about this from a business perspective. Suppose I am sitting at the corporate headquarters of [an insurance company], looking at a $100 million loss in Laguna Beach, Calif. I’m probably not going to insure that area anymore,” Horne theorizes. “However, if I find out that community members are going to do something proactively to increase fire prevention and help decrease the risk, I will probably think twice about it.”
The group began to meet solely for the purpose of strategizing ways to maintain insurability in the area, such as adding more reservoirs and widening streets. Insurance companies took note. “It was then that we suddenly realized that we had become the Greater Laguna Coast Fire Safe Council,” Horne says.
Since the fire in 1993, Horne explains, council members have been concerned that another devastating large-scale fire could happen again. After the August 2000 passage of the National Fire Plan, a government interagency initiative formed to manage the impact of wildland fire to the nation’s communities, the council secured federal funds to help carry out its wildfire prevention activities.
Members routinely practiced preventive measures such as brush clearings and trail breaks and formed a “Red Flag Patrol,” a community task force made up of citizens and city agency employees designed to complement the preventative steps taken by Laguna Beach firefighters. On high-alert days – when dry Santa Ana winds are blowing, when the humidity content of the air is below 20 percent and when there is low moisture content in area vegetation – Red Flag Patrol members go out into the community and actively watch for fires and other suspicious activity.
Although the preventative measures were reducing the risk in large part, council members were still concerned that fires could break out in the city’s remote wilderness areas where no one would be around to detect them. “It was then that one of our members suggested installing remote cameras in the areas to supplement what we were already doing,” Horne says.
After writing a community wildfire protection plan, the council secured a federal grant from the Bureau of Land Management, administered by the California Fire Safe Council, and planned the deployment of a wireless video surveillance network, appropriately named the Fire Watch System, covering more than 20 square miles of the highly vulnerable green belts, parks and open spaces that encircle the city.
“Our goal is to prevent and minimize wildfires in the hard-to-spot areas before they can spread and destroy local residences and businesses,” Horne says. “With this network, we will have, for the first time, the ability to monitor the wilderness areas around the Laguna Canyon during high fire danger days and, hopefully, stop any fires before they cause damage to the community.”
The council commissioned the Laguna Broadcasting Network (LBNet), a Laguna Beach-based wireless Internet service provider, to build the network. For assistance in the project, LBNet partnered with Tropos Networks, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based provider of large-scale wireless mesh network components; and PRO 911 Systems, Laguna Beach, a designer and installer of municipal wireless networks and mesh network systems.
In October 2006, the companies deployed a two-camera test pilot network around homes on the city’s hillside. Now, after gaining permission from the city parks commissioner and securing the appropriate local permits, the council has almost completely deployed the network, consisting of five IPELA SNC-RZ25N pan/tilt/zoom cameras from Sony Electronics, Park Ridge, N.J.
David Mitchell, owner of PRO 911 Systems, says the cameras, two fixed and three on tilt/swivel mounts, will be installed on hilltops on collapsible fiberglass poles that tower 16- to 20-ft. high, providing a ring of coverage around the city’s vulnerable wilderness areas of chaparral, scrub and 8- to 10-ft.-high vegetation. “The Sony IPELA cameras were chosen because they integrate well with the wireless mesh, are very reliable and have flexible power requirements,” Mitchell says. Adds Allen Chan, senior product manager for Sony Electronics’ Security Systems Group, “They were also chosen because of their high sensitivity (0.7 lux color, 0.1 lux black-and-white), and they have a built-in 18x optical auto-focus zoom lens.” The cameras provide a complete panoramic view useful in watching for smoke activity.
The wireless network is backhauled to a solar-powered transmitter with a battery backup. “In building the network, our challenge was to make sure that it would be reliable enough to withstand the rugged conditions of the wilderness and Santa Ana winds,” says Ryen Caenn, president and co-founder of LBNet. “We chose Tropos because of their proven and tested deployments in cities around the world under all sorts of conditions, including their video surveillance and communications network in New Orleans, which survived Katrina.”
During Red Flag conditions, the Laguna Beach Fire Department, park rangers, public safety workers and water utility officials will monitor the cameras in real-time by logging into the network through a Web browser.
“In reality, we are looking for something to give us some early warning and a way to tell the fire department exactly where a fire has been detected,” Horne says. “Even if it’s a 10-, 20- or 30-minute warning, that may be enough to redirect water resources or take a fire that is 5 acres and keep it contained to 5 acres.”
Mitchell agrees. “The value of having just 10-15 extra minutes of warning can make all the difference. The potential is invaluable in an emergency where every minute can mean something.”
Horne says that eventually there may be a possibility for the Orange County Fire Authority to gain access to the network and use the information to create grid maps of fire incidents in hopes of predicting outbreaks.
The U.S. Geological Survey and local environmental and wildlife conservation groups are also interested in using the cameras to track wildlife and habitat movement in the remote areas. “This system is becoming a wonderful example of community and interagency operation,” Mitchell says.