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One of the most enduring and frightening images of Northern California’s 2018 Carr Fire was a giant wildfire-fueled tornado, reportedly the first such phenomenon seen in the United States.

It was the most powerful tornado ever recorded in California — a monster EF-3, as measured by the National Weather Service. Less than 3 percent of tornadoes wield so much power, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A Marin County fire crew was right in its path.

“They got burned over and were in danger of losing their lives,” said Andy Bozzo, a captain for the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District. “They were on the mountain, looking for escape routes. These guys were in the middle of it.”

The crew’s commander was a mile or so away. Using incident management software Tablet Command (TC), developed by Bozzo and former Con Fire assistant chief Will Pigeon, the commander somehow steered them to safety in a parking lot at Keswick Dam near Redding.

“That’s your only safety zone,’” the commander, Battalion Chief Jeremy Pierce, recalled telling the crew in a testimonial on the TC website. “If you don’t get there, you’re probably not going to make it.”

“I could see them moving on Tablet Command which, for me, was a big relief,” Pierce said later in the video.

(Video courtesy of Tablet Command/YouTube)

As California fire seasons get longer, technology will play a bigger role in how firefighters meet escalating challenges. The state already uses AI and more cameras to spot fires faster. Tablet Command steps in once incidents are underway.

Approximately 170 agencies across the U.S. and Canada use the app, including Contra Costa, Santa Clara County, San Mateo County, Benicia, Fairfield, Fresno, Stockton, and Vallejo.

Innovation from tragedy

Government Technology magazine recently named Tablet Command one of its “Top 25 Doers, Dreamers & Drivers for 2021.

The inspiration for TC came from a 2007 case in San Pablo, where two Contra Costa firefighters lost their lives trying to save an elderly couple in a house fire. Bozzo said fire personnel didn’t have enough information to determine the fire’s initial severity, which may have left the first responders overmatched.

“Those guys didn’t realize what they had until they were a half-block away,” said Bozzo, stationed in Concord at the time. “They did what any of us would have.”

The ensuing investigation got Bozzo — a big handheld game player — thinking about what could be done differently. Keeping track of personnel and other incident dynamics frequently came down to a commander’s ability to wield a pencil and paper on a clipboard, which Bozzo called “wholly ineffective.”

“I said ‘Look, I can code. But building an app like this, that’s critical to people’s lives … I don’t want to mess around.’”

Will Pigeon, Tablet Command

He started plotting how scattered responders could see the same information on their own screens. He went to Pigeon, known throughout the fire district as a tech head.

“He knew how to make it accessible for us lunkheads lugging hoses into buildings,” said Bozzo, who lives in Carmel and now works in Antioch. “We sat down at a restaurant and cocktail napkinned the thing.”

Pigeon, who quit fighting fires last year to run the company and its eight employees, said they spent about a year figuring out what the app should do before involving some outside help.

“I said ‘Look, I can code. But building an app like this, that’s critical to people’s lives … I don’t want to mess around,’” said Pigeon, who grew up in Orinda and lives in Lafayette.

Departments quickly took notice, something Bozzo and Pigeon found surprising, given how dismissive old-school firefighters can be of new technology. They collected suggestions, including linking the software to a department’s dispatch system.

With investors and designers on board, the app was available in the Apple store by 2013. They just released the third version.

Harnessing an information network

TC can access recent satellite information and various public camera systems, including those of the California Highway Patrol, park districts, and traffic systems. It features maps, checklists, and overlays on which a commander can update fire location, track crews’ locations, and get feedback on the best points of attack.

Push notifications go out to specified personnel almost immediately after dispatch, which saves valuable time.

“There are few things more important to successful outcomes than effective command and control communications,” said Charles “Chuck” Stark, the operations chief of Con Fire. “The Tablet Command application helps us to excel, providing exceptional situational awareness for our leaders and crews. It gives them early notification and the information they need to respond more efficiently with great mapping and visualization tools as well as instantaneous management updates.”

The latter of which is still a big plus to Bozzo.

“I can see all that in the palm of my hand as I’m walking to get my gear on,” Bozzo said.

Pigeon said studies have shown that every 60 seconds of quicker response time generally increases a victim’s chances of survival by an average of 10 percent. As the app evolves, its uses will likely expand to include other first responders.

“Imagine notifying a public utility that there’s a pole fire, or that wires are down at the same time as fire units are notified,” he said.

TC also analyzes incidents after the fact, helping users learn along the way. Much of the information is immune to data system shutoffs caused by wildfires.

“I have guys who come up to me all the time and say, ‘We were able to make a rescue because we had (Tablet Command),” Bozzo said. “This probably saved their lives.”