High-tech system predicts — and prevents — fires

Big data and communication advances help Israeli firefighters prevent a repeat of the 2010 Carmel tragedy

Yoav Kenan, dircector of the project's geographic information system, at Matash's Rishon Lezion center (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Yoav Kenan, dircector of the project's geographic information system, at Matash's Rishon Lezion center (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Israeli firefighters are using high-tech solutions, such as a system called Matash, to figure out where fires are likely to break out and to prepare accordingly. The system uses predictive analysis, big data collection and breakdowns, and Google Maps-style graphical interfaces to keep a constant eye on both conditions conducive to the spread of fires and assets, including firefighters, equipment and vehicles. Armed with that information, officials can decide where to deploy assets to put out fires before they get out of control. Using made-in-Israel technology, they can develop plans to eliminate fire hazards altogether.

This is especially important in a hot, dry region where rain doesn’t fall for at least half the year, putting Israel at constant risk for major wildfires. With the system, officials hope to alleviate the major fires that have struck the country in recent summers. The memory of the worst fire in the country’s history, the 2010 Carmel forest fire, looms large before them. On the eve of Lag B’Omer, when hundreds of thousands of Israelis will light bonfires, the Fire and Rescue Services opened its doors to the media for its first in-depth interview.

Matash, a project of the Ministry of Public Security, started in September 2013, and the data and analysis generated is shared among all public safety and security services (police, Magen David Adom, etc.). The Israel Fire and Rescue Services, as the fire department is now known, gets the most use out of the system, deploying 1,850 firefighters to answer 87,000 emergency calls per year, 44,000 of which are fire-related. Matash is located at Fire and Rescue headquarters in Rishon Lezion.

“There are three components of the Matash system,” said Guy Hasson, the fire department’s chief information officer. “One lets us see what is going on around the country, another enables us to deploy assets as needed and a third lets us predict where a fire could break out, based on data that the system analyzes.” That latter system, he said, was developed in Israel based on European and American weather prediction models, and is reportedly the first to apply such a wide variety of big data for use in fire prediction and prevention.

Data on incidents is collected from the national network of emergency rescue service reporting systems (100 for police, 102 for fire, etc.). The incidents are displayed on a large map, using a map engine developed by Google, which displays interactive layers that add to an image as needed and give a more complete view of the situation. However, said Hasson, the maps themselves were produced by an Israeli government organization, as the Google maps lack the resolution needed for their purposes.

Guy Hasson (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Guy Hasson (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Once posted on the map, a system dispatcher can zero in on the incident, check neighboring areas to see what must be done to contain a fire, or even to interdict it, and deploy forces as needed. For example, said Hasson, if a car crashes near a gas station, dispatchers will be able to see the location of the crash on the map and send out an emergency call to area firefighters, perhaps deploying several firetrucks because of the large amount of flammable material in the area. Additional relevant data points could include building height and depth; type of terrain; nearby water sources including hydrants, reservoirs and private pools; and even the width of a street, to determine whether a vehicle is too wide to drive along it.

Images are transmitted to and from the fire trucks, which are in constant communication with headquarters via GPS, Wi-Fi devices, and a special military-grade voice and data system. Future plans include deploying satellites or drones to record incidents as they occur in real time, said Hasson.

The same goes for forest fires. “The system gets information from the Jewish National Fund, which is responsible for Israel’s forests, about vegetative growth, what kind of trees are in the area, how moist the soil is, and so on. This way we know how many firefighters are going to be needed and what kind of equipment to send. It also helps us determine exactly where to set up the fire line,” the perimeter where firefighters deploy in order to prevent the spread of a blaze beyond a certain point, said Hasson.

Based on data on the number of people present, flammable materials and other factors, the gradation of colors indicates where a fire would be more intense if one were to break out in the area, with red being the most intense/hottest (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Based on data on the number of people present, flammable materials and other factors, the gradation of colors indicates where a fire would be more intense if one were to break out in the area, with red being the most intense/hottest (Photo credit: Courtesy)

That information can even help the department alleviate the conditions that could cause a fire to spread further and faster. For example, fire officials could issue orders to local authorities to cut vegetation based on data that indicates that it is thick enough to cause a fire that would spread too far before firefighters could arrive at the scene to extinguish it.

Prior to the implementation of Matash, firefighting in Israel was more haphazard, admits Hasson. Instead of one national coordinator, there were 24 different regional and urban firefighting authorities, most of them poorly funded, according to numerous government investigative panels set up in the wake of the Carmel forest fire. The fire, the deadliest blaze in Israel’s history, was responsible for 44 deaths and destroyed hundreds of buildings and millions of trees. Among the decisions to come out of the investigative panels was the implementation of the Matash project, said Hasson.

Yoav Kenan, director of the project's geographic information system, at the Fire Department's control room in Rishon Lezion (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Yoav Kenan, director of the project’s geographic information system, at the Fire Department’s control room in Rishon Lezion (Photo credit: Courtesy)

From a primitive, slow application-based communication system just a few years ago, the new Israeli fire data system is one of the world’s most advanced fire prevention systems, said Hasson. The United States’s National Center for Atmospheric Research, the US Air Force and the US Navy helped develop the reporting and communications components of Matash, but it was Israeli big data technology that built the database the fire department uses to predict and prevent fires.

“We have lots of data about buildings, businesses, environmental conditions — basically, any data that can be collected is collected, to be applied to fire prevention,” said Hasson. “If someone wants to open a restaurant that serves alcohol, for example, we’ll know where the restaurant is and where the alcohol storeroom is located. We can then analyze what is in the area, how much ventilation is needed, whether the storage area needs to be moved because it’s near a gas heater or other flammable source on the other side of the wall, etc.” The same goes for any other kind of business; the data on the business is crunched and compared to data on neighboring environmental conditions, and the fire department sends down an inspector to suggest changes, as needed.

Big data also helps fire officials decide exactly what assets needed to be positioned where. “For example, you will have hundreds of thousands of people at Meron on Lag B’Omer,” the 33rd day of the Omer period, on which many ultra-Orthodox families camp out at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Mount Meron in northern Israel and join in celebrations, many of them involving large bonfires. Bonfires are also popular among kids in cities throughout Israel, said Hasson.

“Based on traffic reports, congestion, weather and wind conditions, the level of moisture in the ground in each part of the country, and, of course, incidents that are phoned in, we know how many firefighters we will need to deploy in Meron or in central Tel Aviv, and whether they need to be deployed right at the site or can be held back in case of emergency,” said Hasson. “When you have a lot of people and a lot of bonfires, you know something bad is likely to happen, but with Matash, we can determine more closely where that bad thing might take place, and be ready for it.”

Because the system is relatively new and has not yet gone through an Israeli summer, Hasson said he could not share official statistics on its effectiveness. Anecdotally, he said, call center operators and firefighters are stunned at how the technology helped them do their jobs. “There’s no question that we are going to be able to deal with major events much more effectively,” Hasson said. “We all hope and pray that we will never have to face tragedies like the Carmel fire again, but if, God forbid, such a thing does happen, we’re ready to save lives and minimize losses.”

Click below for a video from the JNF about the Carmel forest fire:

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