The Cocos Fire burns in west Escondido in May 2014. Photo by Chris Stone

A group of notable San Diegans are helping shape a major firefighting wave of the future, according to a Fast Company magazine story, “The New Digital Breed of Fire Command.”

The story focuses on retired Air Force colonel Jack Thorpe and two CalFire chiefs, Bill Clayton and Marc Hafner, who are working on a new firefighting tool, a web application that could help fire crews get a handle on a chaotic scene more quickly to aid their response. UC San Diego has aided the process as well.

“What used to take 12 hours,” one chief said of command coordination, “realistically can take 12 minutes.”

But according to the story, the team is seeking funding to continue their project, called the Next-Generation Incident Command System, because key federal grants that paid for its development expire this year. San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts is aiding in the funding effort.

Thorpe, who holds a Ph.D. in industrial psychology, was described by a military expert as “a pioneer (and) a thought leader” in virtual military command.

He has lent his hand to fire chiefs in his retirement, coming up with the idea for the program, known as NICS, based on technology Thorpe helped develop for the military, called the Command Post of the Future.

The software application can link any firefighter with a laptop, tablet or smartphone, the story said, to a real-time map displaying fire parameters, changing weather conditions, positions of first responders on the scene, residences that are in danger and a series of other factors that could impact commanders’ decisions.

The system, developed because of Thorpe’s consultation with fire professionals and coded by software experts at an MIT laboratory, has been widely tested at wildfires in San Diego and throughout the state since late 2010.

One of the chiefs who helped Thorpe, Clayton, is considered such a sage, he’s known as a Fire Jedi, one observer said in the story. In order to be convinced of the program’s potential worth he was even willing to go to Baghdad during the Iraq war to see Thorpe’s command post application in action.

Now he’s a convert, which he attributes to Thorpe’s willingness to spend months attending fire scenes with him to learn what firefighters would like to see in such a system. Those who have helped create NICS believe, the story said, the system could be adopted widely by all categories of first responders – not just firefighters – from police to the Border Patrol.

“It’s a tool that will save, if it hasn’t already, lives and property,” Clayton says.

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