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Bringing fire tech into 21st century

As a child, Bailey Farren practically grew up in Petaluma’s fire stations, where her mother worked as a paramedic and her father was a fire captain.

But it wasn’t until the catastrophic 2017 Tubbs fire, which forced her and her family to quickly evacuate from their Santa Rosa home, did the 24-year-old start to consider charting her own path in public safety.

It was in those chaotic moments, attempting to discern where the fire was burning and what road the family should take to safety, that the seeds for Farren’s interest in fire mapping and technology were planted. This growing curiosity would soon morph into a calling for the Sonoma County native, eventually co-founding a startup, Perimeter, aimed at delivering easy-to-read and updated satellite maps to emergency responders and evacuating residents alike.

“I’ve seen my dad go off to fight wildfires since I was a little kid, but I had never experienced one myself,” said Farren, a student at UC Berkeley when the blaze hit. “It was a surprising and shocking experience for me. I was taking my first computer science class at the time, where I was swimming in modern technology, but we had nothing in our hands that day helping us evacuate and make decisions.”

In the years since the devastating Tubbs fire, in which county officials failed to issue widespread alerts and a state-led review found the county possessed an inadequate understanding of alert capabilities, some improvements have been made. With wildfires sweeping through the county with unsettling frequency, residents have become more adept at understanding risks and tuning in to emergency alert systems.

But for Farren, who has now been forced to evacuate from Sonoma County wildfires several times, information is often confusing and unclear.

“When you don’t have a dynamic map, it’s really hard to figure out where to go, where the fire is, where the bottlenecks might be,” she said, recalling her family’s stressful self-evacuation this summer from a campsite along the Russian River. “Our alert described an evacuation zone, ‘south of that’, ‘east of this’, and I had to spend some time looking at paper maps to find the edges of this evacuation polygon.”

The experience further motivated her to press on with Perimeter, which has grown from a research project at UC Berkeley to a five-member company. Now CEO alongside co-founder and CTO Noah Wu, Farren is forging ahead with beta testing of a platform that would give evacuees a collaborative and interactive map, similar to Google Maps and Waze.

She and Wu are joined by three other full-time employees in building out a platform they say allows first responders to collect, input and share information in real-time in a simple and intuitive interface. Citizens will be able to view this information on an interactive map, Farren said, and hopes this kind of technology will eventually be implanted in emergency alerts themselves.

As a daughter to first responders, Farren also knew that the men and women on the front lines of firefighting were also grappling with technology gaps and antiquated methods of communication.

It was through conversations with her Dad, retired fire captain and 26-year Petaluma Fire Department veteran Dan Farren, that she came to understand the extent of the problem.

In recent years, fires in California have become larger, hotter and more destructive. In few places is that as clear as in Sonoma County, where a succession of historic blazes have torched thousands of properties and killed nearly two dozen people within the last few years alone. Yet as firefighters and first responders are stretched to their limits fighting unprecedented infernos, many rely on antiquated tools like radios and paper maps.

“These fires are a reason why we need to make this transition to new tech now,” Farren said. “There’s a beloved phrase in the fire service: ‘200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress.’ But I don’t think that’s true anymore, I think we’ve recognized it’s time we bring things into the 21st century, and firefighters know that better than anyone.”

Chad Costa, battalion chief with the Petaluma Fire Department and head of technology and communications, has worked closely with Perimeter over the past few years.

A 22-year veteran with the fire service, Costa has traveled across California and neighboring western states to assist in fighting large wildfires. Most recently, Costa was in charge of overseeing swaths of the 2019 Kincade fire and this summer’s Walbridge fire.

He says while there’s been significant advancements in some firefighting technology, such as infrared mapping, he thinks there’s still a need for accurate and detailed satellite maps and an ability to track resources scattered throughout large areas.

In remote regions, where wildfires often spark, cell coverage can either be spotty or nonexistent, he said.

Costa said he and other leaders are often forced to use archaic methods, ones he thinks can be partly replaced by newer, satellite-based technology, like that proposed by Perimiter.

“During the Walbridge fire, you would see me out there, writing on a paper map where each engine is,” Costa said. “That’s sometimes the only way I can keep track of things, and it’s really unfortunate. This new technology is there, it’s just a matter of getting it on a central platform and making it accessible.”

Perimeter has already began working with Palo Alto’s office of emergency services to test the platform, and Costa says he and Farren launched an informal partnership to beta-test the technology within the Petaluma Fire Department.

“Paper is good fallback, but when there’s the ability to use technology, we need to be using it,” Costa said. “It could be a game-changer.”

(Contact Kathryn Palmer at kathryn.palmer@arguscourier.com, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)

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