Fighting fire with thin clients speeds up critical data delivery

Back when Lynn Ducharme was on the front lines of forest firefighting, the information needed to make decisions was often faxed to base camps. That was slow and cumbersome, and worse, the information was in black and white, making it difficult to read. At one point, the data was also burned onto

CDs and driven up to base camps, causing long delays.

Today, firefighters in Alberta battling raging wildfires can get information at the click of a button and in colour using thin client technology from Citrix.

“”I would say this is a remarkable improvement,”” says Lynn Ducharme, a fire applications specialist for Alberta Sustainable Resource Development (SRD) in Edmonton. “”We would set up remote base camps and have to fax forecast information and maps. Nothing could be in colour, and that made it difficult to read. Being able to access all your programs and live data so you can make a real-time decision has made a big difference.””

But there are no panaceas. And though information about weather conditions, wind direction, lightening strikes, the terrain and crew positions are now all readily at hand, it does not mean that fires are put out any faster than before. This still requires as much manpower and coordination of equipment such as water bombers as before, says Darryl Seeger, the network administrator for Strategic Corporate Services at SRD.

“”It hasn’t changed the way fires are fought,”” says Seeger. “”What it has done is give us a way to provide information. The more we give them, the less time delay.””

Ducharme has now moved from the front lines to more of a support and training role. This means she’s often traveling all around the province, so the thin client technology makes her job easier because it enables her to offer support from anywhere.

“”The applications don’t have to be loaded on any computer,”” she says. “”Also, being in a support capacity evenings and weekends, when users have difficulty, they can contact me, and I can be at home or in another area of the province, and I can still access the applications to provide support.””

The technology can also be used to provide information to the public, says George Cser, the infrastructure systems solutions manager for Strategic Corporate Services at SRD.

The Citrix technology is used to provide a wide variety of information from more than 140 applications such as environmental information and maps. Intake commanders and fire managers can access GIS information through ArcView. They can also keep track of crew and equipment location. The technology also gives decision makers access to e-mail and Microsoft Office programs

When SRD was looking at a way to speed up delivery of information, Citrix was really the only technology that could provide them with what they needed at the time, Seeger says.

Though they looked at Microsoft’s Windows Terminal Server, it lacked functionality, he says.

“”There were some things there you just can’t do that you can do with thin client functionality,”” he says.

The main problem with the Citrix software has been the ability to print, Cser says.

“”It’s always been one of the downsides.””

There are different printers all over the province, Seeger says.

“”Printing has always been my biggest challenge,”” he says, adding the latest release of Citrix has some generic print driver functionality which is potentially going to solve some of the issues.

For the future, SRD is also looking into .Net and Java technology.

“”We’ll probably end up having a variety of tools in the long run, but I still look at Citrix right now as the primary tool for me to deploy the stuff I need to do.””

In the recent past, the big concern for Citrix was the upcoming release of Microsoft Windows Terminal Server 2003, says Toronto-based Steve Kleynhans, a vice-president of analyst firm Meta Group.

“”Citrix always has to be concerned its primary product is a layer that adds value to a Microsoft product,”” he says. “”You have to prove that your product can add value.””

However, when Server 2003 came out, it quickly became apparent there wasn’t a problem for Citrix. It could still provide additional functionality, which means it’s reasonably safe for three years, as there won’t likely be a release until then, he says.

David Wright, the area vice-president for Citrix Systems Inc. in Canada, views Microsoft as an important partner for Citrix.

SRD has been using the Citrix MetaFrame Secure Access Manager technology since 1998. Employees can connect to information either through a dialup link, a 1X wireless connection or by satellite.

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