New sensors can detect fires by noting temperature change

A pilot study of an electronic fire-detecting system unveiled last May by Nea Pendeli’s Mayor Costas Kosovitsas is nearing completion, having proved itself as a reliable means of detecting blazes early and giving firefighters precise information about the site of blazes. Devised by scientists at the National Technical University of Athens, the Athens Observatory and three private companies, the system, called FireMentor, uses tiny sensors installed in trees that transmit information about temperature changes to an operations center. The system keeps operating even if some of the sensors are destroyed in a blaze. The technology can be used by firefighters to devise the best way of extinguishing a fire and has been designed to provide information about how best to evacuate the area. The pilot study covered a 50-hectare area of forest. The sensors, equipped with thermometers, microcomputers and a wireless communication unit, send data at regular intervals to a central point, where they are analyzed. The message does not travel straight to the center, which would require a stronger transmitter and energy consumption, but from sensor to sensor, tree to tree. If a fire breaks out and a sensor is destroyed after sending a coded message to the sensor closest to it, messages keep moving. The FireMentor system can sense a fire from the time it starts, so no valuable time is wasted in sending in firefighters. «We observe temperature distribution through a forest in real time,» said Vassilis Veskoukis, an assistant professor at the NTUA who is in charge of quality control on the project. «When a fire starts, the system picks it up immediately, very useful for large areas where monitoring by humans is difficult. If it breaks out simultaneously at two or more sites, we can be sure that it is the result of arson.» According to Professor Nikos Markatos, who heads the project, aircraft taking part in the firefighting effort can be given the precise coordinates of the fire, something that is not possible otherwise due to smoke cover. The software also makes it possible to forecast the path of the fire. The system processes a three-dimensional map of the region, which includes meteorological data such as temperature, wind strength and direction and the type of trees and forest density. «The system can predict where the fire is likely to spread according to prevailing conditions. It can also direct firefighting vehicles and aircraft, taking into consideration the restrictions and risks of the fire spreading,» said Veskoukis. During the pilot study, scientists experimented by altering conditions and creating forest fire scenarios. Given that the ideal distance between sensors is 40-50 meters, about 5,000 are needed for a 100-hectare area. The cost is about 100,000 euros for an area like this, but the experts say that a further adaptation of the sensor will reduce this amount by 2.5 times. Although still being tested, several local government authorities from around the country have already shown an interest in the system. According to Markatos and Veskoukis, the system is most useful for forests around cities where they are a crucial factor in the region’s ecological and economic viability. The only concern at the moment is the lack of coordination between official bodies such as the fire brigade, the forestry service and the General Secretariat for Civil Defense. «We expected to find more cooperation,» the experts said. «For the moment, however, that has not happened.»