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Post: Spotting fires with the eagle eyes of Africa’s Firehawk

fire

Spotting fires with the eagle eyes of Africa’s Firehawk

For 29 years, the services of a small South African company are often mentioned in risk mitigation, integrated fire management and fire analysis reports. However, their role as a management tool that facilitates locating and suppressing wildfires before they are out of control seems to be taken for granted.

WoodBiz Africa interviewed Willem Oosthuizen of Alasia Marketing about the company’s indispensable product, FireHawk.

Willem, thank you for the opportunity to discuss FIREHAWK.

WHAT IS IT, AND HOW DOES IT WORK?

The FireHawk system uses 360-degree rotating HD digital cameras to monitor areas. The software differentiates between fire, smoke, and glow. It raises the alarm by transmitting information to operators at the base station. Positioning is done from a single camera, with the ability to cross-reference for improved accuracy.

WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS FOR FORESTRY COMPANIES?

Forestry companies in many countries depend on manned lookout towers to raise the alarm when they spot smoke or flames. The lookout staff are exposed to extreme weather and environmental conditions. In addition, when the wind blows, it is difficult for them to accurately calculate the position of the fire because the smoke is moving.

The benefits of the FireHawk system include early wildfire detection, real-time data access, and 24/7 support. We have full-time technicians available to respond to faults and have an uptime on our cameras of about 99%. There are obviously outliers to that statement, but it is generally true.

FIREHAWK WAS LAUNCHED ALMOST 30 YEARS AGO.
HOW
ARE YOU INTEGRATING NEW TECHNOLOGIES INTO THE SYSTEM?

Firehawk has been through many different iterations from 1994 to the present, from initially streaming live video from the towers to the control room to pre-processing much of the data at the towers.

The move from analogue to digital cameras happened in 2006 when we began operating in the Midlands of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). This was the first system to move to pre-processing imagery at the towers. By 2009 we had moved all cameras in South Africa to digital systems.

In 2017 Firehawk experienced the most significant step in its capabilities when high-definition (HD) cameras became rugged enough to be installed in harsh environments.

In its current iteration, the system is designed to use easy-to-source components to roll out in the rural areas and countries where we generally work. The detection algorithms are built in-house and continuously trained to improve the detection capabilities.

WHO WERE YOUR FIRST CLIENTS?

The Richmond FPA was the first and is still the longest-standing user of the Firehawk system. In 1997 the Zululand Fire Protection Services (ZFPS) was contracted to manage the manned lookouts for timber growers in the area from Mtunzini to St Lucia. Concerned about the accuracy of data, the ZFPS invested in FireHawk. In 2000 the contract was taken over by Alasia Marketing, the company that owns the Firehawk product.

CAN YOU NAME A FEW OF YOUR PRESENT CLIENTS?

We contract to the FPAs in South Africa; however, the final clients are Mondi, Sappi, NCT, York Timbers, KLF, Rance Timbers, and PG Bison. In Chile, our clients include Arauco, CPMC, and Conaf, and in Brazil, we have contracts with Eldorado, Duratex and LD Cellulose. We have several new clients in Uruguay as well.

In Malawi, we contract with Illovo Sugar; in Ghana, we work with Form Ghana.

We collaborate with forestry companies, research organisations and governments to develop tailored solutions for specific projects. For example, Sappi has developed its High-Performance forestry system, and we developed a feed of information directly into it.

IS THERE A STANDARD FIREHAWK SYSTEM?

It is important to note that Firehawk is not a one-system-fits-all solution. When a potential client approaches us, we discuss the client’s needs and conditions before designing the system. One of the first questions is whether the client has firefighting procedures and capacity. We have helped clients get their firefighting capabilities off the ground in several instances before installing Firehawk.

The information we need includes the size and location of their forestry areas, their existing infrastructure like offices and lookout towers, and their needs and concerns related to fire detection.

From there, we load the client’s landholding data into GIS mapping software with terrain data. Then we run algorithms to work out the optimal placement of the towers with varying combinations of the existing tower locations and new points the system finds. We go back and forth until we have something that works for them.

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ARE THERE SENSORS IN THE TOWERS?

Because we use visual imagery to detect fires, the word “sensor” is not technically correct. We use the visible light spectrum to detect smoke during the day and glow from a fire at night. Both have a unique signature, which the algorithms are programmed to detect.

TECHNICAL BACKUP SERVICE CAN MAINTAIN OR BREAK A SUPPLIER AND CUSTOMER RELATIONSHIP. HOW DO YOU SUPPORT YOUR CUSTOMERS?

The client’s technical team is trained during the system installation so that they are involved in every step of the process. The operators are trained on the system as the cameras are installed in the field.

They start the process from the time the first camera goes online. Once implemented, we do refresher training annually, with one of our team going to each area and doing an audit and touch-up training as required.

HOW IS THE INFORMATION COMMUNICATED TO THE CONTROL ROOM? IS THERE AN APP?

We install communication links between all the towers with multiple redundant links to each tower. In more first-world countries, we include cellular towers where they are reliable enough to support them. Heat and smoke do not affect our communication network. The loading and manipulation of the data is done in an Open Source GIS platform called QGIS. From there, it is displayed directly in the Firehawk system in our custom-built display and the Firehawk App.

WHAT ABOUT MONITORING AND ANALYSIS?

We monitor every aspect of the system remotely. Operator input and use are logged with every mouse click. Every wireless link is monitored, and every tower’s voltage is tracked. We do everything needed to find your fires and tell you where they are.

DATA STORAGE AND THE INTEGRITY OF DATA ARE TOP OF MIND TODAY. HOW DO YOU MANAGE THE EXTENSIVE DATA YOU COLLECT?

Every image in the system is stored in-house on the detection machine for approximately 30 days. In the case of a problematic fire, we download the data and store it in cloud servers for future reference.

We do not rely on external servers to process the information outside the network. In most cases, there is no way to move that amount of data off-site, and it can also be costly. So, we keep and handle all data in-house to ensure that we control the critical points of the system ourselves for the detection of fires.

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The camera fire detection system has a 360 deg view for up to 12km

TODAY MOST LARGE FORESTOWNERS AND REFORESTATION COMPANIES LIKE FORM GHANA ARE IMPLEMENTING INTEGRATED FIRE MANAGEMENT (IFM) SYSTEMS. WHAT IS FIREHAWK’S ROLE IN IFM?

I am pleased you asked that question. Firehawk is the tool that enables IFM. Our role is to provide accurate fire location data to reduce firefighting response time, making fires smaller and more manageable. We equip the control room with real-time monitors displaying the camera’s feed and train the operators to detect, log and report the fire to the relevant authority. The operators are there to monitor the system and raise the alarm, not to manage the fire.

That is the job of the dispatchers and knowledgeable fire teams and crews. The challenge for our clients is managing their standard operating procedures once a fire is detected.

EARLIER, WE DISCUSSED THE IMPACT OF TECHNOLOGICAL CHANGE. THERE ARE MANY OPPORTUNITIES FOR NEW ENTRANTS INTO THE FIRE DETECTION MARKET.
WHAT CHALLENGES AND TRENDS DO YOU FORESEE?

You are right. The number of new players coming into the market is staggering. The most significant trend is using satellites for thermal detection, as the data is reasonably easy to come by and easily manipulated.

My biggest concern at the moment is the new players in the market. I am desperately worried, not that they will take business from Firehawk because there is enough in the world for all of us. I worry that one of them will sell something that is not up to scratch or not support their system, resulting in the entire industry’s bad reputation.

WILLEM, WHERE DO YOU SEE FIREHAWK IN THE FUTURE?

Our vision for the future of FireHawk is to continue providing effective early fire detection to help combat fires while they are still manageable. We will continue using the most up-to-date equipment and technology while remaining affordable and providing user-friendly, simple-to-use products.

Source: WoodBiz Africa Magazine

 

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