Media coverage of wildfire often focuses on the brutality of death and destruction – but alongside these horrific outcomes is the often overlooked and underestimated danger of smoke. This insidious threat isn’t localized to the fire itself but can spread across the country. Worse, we don’t have a coordinated response. This report explores what is being done at the federal level to address wildland fire smoke, what’s missing, and makes recommendations to address this national health issue.
As the wildfire season has grown longer in the West, smoke events now sometimes stretch for weeks and across the continent. As a result, millions of people are exposed to harmful levels of air pollution on a near-annual basis. Wildland fire smoke is a chemical stew, but the component that is most well-studied and considered the most immediately threatening is fine particulate matter 2.5 microns in diameter and smaller (PM2.5). These particles are small enough to bypass the body’s natural defenses, burrow deep into the lungs, and even pass into the bloodstream where they set off a systemic inflammatory response. Smoke exposure leads to increased frequency and severity of asthma attacks, worsened COPD symptoms, increased risk of stroke and heart attack, increased susceptibility to infectious disease, and increased hospital visits and deaths. Recent research finds that repeated smoke exposure may also increase the risk of developing dementia. Thousands of deaths and hospitalizations occur each year from wildland fire smoke exposure, with most of the impacted persons living far from an active fire. Those most at risk from wildland fire smoke include children and youths under 18, older adults, pregnant people, people with heart or lung disease, outdoor workers, and persons of low socioeconomic status.
The federal government’s efforts to protect the populace from wildland fire smoke health impacts are made difficult because exposure to wildland fire smoke is influenced by many factors, including fire and smoke characteristics; the indoor environment; time and activity levels spent outside; use of respiratory protection; and the knowledge, belief, and ability to reduce exposure. Understanding and addressing these factors requires a broad array of specialties, including atmospheric science and chemistry, forestry and fire science, building and aerosol science, epidemiology and health effects research, air quality monitoring, risk communication, and social science.
Because there is no one federal office, department or agency with the expertise to address all facets of smoke exposure, collaboration across multiple entities is necessary. However, because coordination across agencies is often not formalized or even funded, projects are scattered across the federal science agencies, often with experts from multiple offices collaborating as needed on an ad hoc basis.
Consequently, information about how federal entities are addressing the impacts of wildland fire smoke is scattered across dozens of agency websites and hundreds of public reports. Without a comprehensive accounting of federal action on wildland fire smoke, it may be difficult for researchers, grantees, and policymakers to collaborate across the landscape, diagnose inefficiencies, and propose innovative solutions. It may also be challenging for communities to know where to turn when seeking knowledge and tools for responding to the rising smoke threat.
Importantly, federal wildland fire smoke efforts are often distinct from wildfire management strategies. The latter do not usually consider potential smoke impacts when prioritizing initial attacks or determining suppression strategies. Rather, land managers are generally more focused on addressing future wildfire smoke impacts by using beneficial fire in hopes it will reduce future wildfire smoke emissions.
To answer the question, “What is the federal government doing about wildland fire smoke, and who’s doing it?” we conducted an analysis of public-facing materials to understand a broad suite of federal wildland fire smoke activities. Then, we grouped them into four main categories of action: research; guidance preparation and dissemination; situational awareness; and direct community assistance. Finally, we identified opportunity areas for additional federal action to improve health outcomes for the most vulnerable. Note that this analysis is based on publicly available information to the best of our knowledge at time of publication. It may not encompass all wildland fire smoke efforts at all agencies.
More about this analysis can be found at the end of this report.
The most cross-cutting federal wildland fire smoke effort is research. Numerous agencies are conducting and participating in studies dedicated to smoke composition, movement, measurement, health impacts, climate change implications, and ways to mitigate public exposure. (For a sense of scale, see “Wildland Fire Smoke in the United States: A Scientific Assessment.” Published in late 2022, the assessment runs 346 pages and outlines research efforts dedicated to understanding wildland fire smoke and its impacts.)
Scientists from land management (USFS, BLM, NPS), earth sciences (NOAA, NASA, USGS), health (CDC, EPA), and other (DOE, DoD, DHS, NIST ) agencies all take part in wildland fire smoke research, with frequent collaboration across agencies and offices (e.g. FASMEE and FIREX-AQ, below). In addition, federal agencies frequently partner with state, local, Tribal, university, international and nongovernmental partners. The federal government also sponsors wildland fire smoke research and innovation at universities and other non-governmental organizations, with federal grants coming from NSF, NIH, EPA, DoD, CDC-NIOSH, USFS and DOI (via the Joint Fire Sciences Program), HRSA, NASA, NOAA, and others.
Insights from these efforts inform public health guidance, improve smoke forecasting and communication, and may help the federal government develop meaningful policies and procedures to mitigate current and future smoke impacts.
There are far too many research efforts to summarize, even at a high level. See this table for an overview of where federal agencies and offices intersect with research topics. Below are some selected highlights:
FASMEE and FIREX-AQ
FASMEE (primary agency: USFS) and FIREX-AQ (primary agencies: NOAA and NASA) are large-scale, multi-year collaborative research efforts that combine data from satellite, aerial and ground measurements to improve our understanding of fire behavior and the resulting smoke’s movement, composition and impacts. An important end goal of these efforts is improved smoke modeling. Smoke modeling will help alert communities to future smoke impacts and help land managers plan prescribed fires to minimize smoke impacts.
In addition to participating in the above smoke modeling projects, the EPA conducts and participates in an array of wildland fire smoke research. EPA’s wildland fire smoke research catalog includes work on health effects, interventions, and risk communication to reduce smoke exposure, pollution monitoring, and characterizing smoke pollution chemistry and concentrations (i.e. smoke “emissions”). Some recent projects include an evaluation of DIY air cleaners, a characterization of emissions from fires in the wildland urban interface, an analysis of indoor air quality in commercial buildings during smoke events, and development of a community health vulnerability index for wildland fire smoke.
Joint Fire Science Program
The Joint Fire Science Program (JFSP) is funded by DOI and USFS. Since its establishment in 1998, JFSP has invested more than $25 million in wildland fire smoke research conducted by agency and nonfederal partners. JFSP also hosts the Fire Science Exchange Network to provide “the most relevant, current wildland fire science information to federal, state, local, tribal, and private stakeholders within ecologically similar regions.”
Wildland Urban Interface Fires
Smoke from burning vegetation is composed of toxic chemicals. As more fires burn into the wildland urban interface (WUI), concern is mounting about additional harm from burning metals, plastics and other artificial components in the built environment. To better understand smoke in the WUI, NIST, NIEHS, and the CDC sponsored the 2022 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) consensus study report: The Chemistry of Fires at the Wildland Urban Interface, which “evaluates existing and needed chemistry information that decision-makers can use to mitigate WUI fires and their potential health impacts.” One of the knowledge gaps identified in the report is a characterization of the amount and type of pollutants generated when fires burn homes, vehicles, and other anthropogenic materials. To begin addressing this gap, EPA recently compiled emission factors for hazardous air pollutants that may be found in WUI fires. And, while much of NIST’s work in fire has been focused on residential and commercial structure fires, the agency has started modeling WUI and landscape fires and researched how smoke may impact evacuations.
NASA Health Research
A (perhaps unexpected) source of wildfire smoke public health research funding is NASA. While much of NASA’s wildland fire smoke research efforts revolve around atmospheric science and the physical characteristics of smoke, NASA has been funding Health and Air Quality Applied Science Team (HAQAST) projects since 2016 as part of its Applied Science program. Not all HAQAST projects involve wildland fire smoke, but NASA recently funded a project examining the health burden of the 2017 wildfires in California. NASA also recently funded a study examining the impact of smoke from Alaska wildfires on respiratory and cardiovascular health.
Wildland Firefighter Exposure
Among those most exposed to wildland fire smoke are wildland firefighters. Recent research by CDC-NIOSH (in collaboration with USFS and DOI) aims to understand the impacts of repeated smoke exposure on wildland firefighter health. This will build on previous USFS and JSFP research on wildland firefighter smoke exposure. Because wildland firefighters often do not have access to adequate respiratory protection for their occupation, DHS is funding efforts by an industry partner to develop a respirator to meet these firefighters’ unique needs.
Guidance preparation and dissemination
When wildland fire smoke enters a community, residents need to know about health risks and how they can limit their exposure. Federal public health agencies (EPA and CDC) have largely assumed the task of preparing wildland fire smoke guidance and providing it to the public and to state, local, and Tribal agencies.
The following is a broad summary of the federal government’s guidance preparation and dissemination efforts at the time of publication.
Resources for Public Health Officials and Physicians
EPA’s comprehensive Wildfire Fire Smoke Guide for Public Health Officials (developed in collaboration with experts from CDC, USFS, and non-federal partners) addresses health concerns, outdoor activities, indoor air quality, respirators, interpreting air quality data, protecting vulnerable persons, pets and livestock, and more. Because medical training does not typically cover air pollution health impacts, EPA and CDC have created a course for physicians and other medical professionals so they can better prepare their patients for wildland fire smoke events.
Resources for the Public
EPA and CDC also provide fact sheets by topic that are available for public dissemination. CDC-NIOSH has guidance available for protecting outdoor workers from smoke and, as the certifying body for respirators, provides the public and workers with information about respirator selection and use.
Resources for Communities
EPA has compiled resources for communities into their Smoke Ready Toolbox, which serves as a catchall for interested persons to learn about smoke and how they can protect themselves and their community. In addition, both EPA and CDC have created resources targeted at children to help them navigate fires and smoke.Experts from multiple federal agencies contribute to the creation of guidance; however, outside the health agencies, few federal agencies provide that guidance to the communities their programs serve. When they do, it is often buried as a blog post or news post rather than a static page. There are some limited exceptions: NPS and FEMA include information on their websites about respirators for the public in the event of wildland fire smoke; USFS provides smoke preparedness information on the Interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program and the Wildfire Risk to Communities sites; DHS provides information about respirators and indoor air quality on Ready.gov; and the DoD provides a fact sheet for military personnel about wildland fire smoke (though it has incomplete health impact information and does not include recommendations related to clean indoor air).
To prepare for and respond to wildland fire smoke, the public and decision makers need to know current and projected smoke levels. Multiple federal agencies work to provide air quality monitoring data, smoke forecasts, and satellite imagery to the public, and their efforts rely on frequent interagency collaboration and data sharing.
The following is a broad summary of the federal government’s situational awareness efforts.
Air Quality Monitoring
Air quality monitoring data provides real-time information about how much smoke is currently impacting communities.
Real time air quality monitoring data allow the public to understand current conditions. EPA, USFS, NPS and state, local and Tribal air pollution control programs deploy and maintain particulate pollution monitors that can measure the PM2.5 levels in wildland fire smoke. EPA provides access to PM2.5 air monitoring data from permanent monitors across the country via Airnow.gov and its apps. For wildfires, however, the agency directs the public to the Fire and Smoke Map. This map is a public-facing collaboration between EPA and USFS that provides near real-time data about both smoke pollution and fires based on the user’s location. The Fire and Smoke Map incorporates air quality data from permanent monitors, temporary monitors, and Purple Air sensors; heat detections from NOAA and NASA satellites; fire information from the National Interagency Fire Center; smoke forecast from the Interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program; and smoke plume overlays from NOAA’s Hazard Mapping System.
EPA’s color-coded Air Quality Index provides the public with pollution severity indicators and associated protective measures, which allows individuals and decision makers to understand current health risks and implement exposure reduction strategies.
Satellite Imagery and Heat Detections
Satellite imagery shows current smoke conditions and smoke movement as fires burn across the landscape. Satellite-based heat detections show real time fire activity and can be used by smoke forecasters to anticipate smoke production. These data are also incorporated into smoke models discussed below.
Smoke forecasts in the form of models and narratives provide information about how much smoke is expected to impact an area. Multiple agencies contribute expertise or funding to smoke modeling work, including NOAA, EPA, USFS, NIST, DOE, NASA, and DoD.
NOAA develops smoke forecasting models such as HRRR Smoke and RRFS Smoke, and provides air quality forecasting guidance. Forecasters with NOAA’s National Weather Service issue air quality alerts on behalf of air pollution control agencies and sometimes include projected smoke impacts in their narrative forecasts.
USFS led the creation of the Interagency Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program, which embeds Air Resource Advisors (ARAs) into teams of officials managing active wildfires (known as incident management teams). The USFS gathers ARAs from an array of federal agencies (including USFS, NPS, and EPA), state, Tribal and local governments, and the private sector. ARAs provide daily smoke outlooks to the public and incident management teams and deploy air quality monitors. USFS also created the BlueSky smoke modeling framework, which supports ARA efforts and is available to the public. USFS incorporates EPA’s CMAQ smoke model into BlueSky’s framework to provide daily smoke projections.
Direct community assistance
With no end in sight to repeated smoke exposures and research showing that a significant amount of smoke comes indoors, there is growing recognition that communities need to prepare for smoke not only outside but also in their homes, schools, and businesses. This necessitates upgrading existing building filtration and ventilation systems, distributing air cleaners to vulnerable community members, having respirators available for outdoor workers, setting up respite cleaner air shelters, and more.
Federal agencies such as EPA and USFS encourage the creation of smoke-ready communities, but so far, direct community assistance in the form of monetary or expert technical assistance has been limited. Unlike hazards such as flood and fire, there are no smoke-specific community resilience grants available from FEMA, and smoke-related efforts are not explicitly included among FEMA’s eligible fire-mitigation projects.
This section describes federal community assistance efforts currently underway to address wildland fire smoke.
EPA has provided technical assistance to communities interested in turning schools into neighborhood cleaner air and cooling centers. They have also partnered with USFS to help two counties develop smoke preparedness plans as part of a research study. EPA recently launched the Wildfire Smoke Preparedness in Community Buildings Grant Program, which provides eligible entities a chance at a part of $10.67 million to improve public health protection against wildland fire smoke. The agency anticipates funding 13-18 projects.
While EPA’s Environmental Justice Grant program is not specifically targeted at wildland fire smoke, some communities have successfully applied for EPA Environmental Justice Grants to implement smoke-preparedness projects.
EPA also maintains an air sensor loan program to assist communities seeking more information about local air quality impacts, including from wildland fire smoke.
As a significant step forward in acknowledging smoke as a wildfire hazard, USFS now includes smoke-ready planning and implementation projects as eligible for Community Wildfire Defense Grants (CWDGs), which fund community wildfire fire protection plan (CWPP) development and revision as well as implementation of projects identified in existing CWPPs. However, USFS’s requirement that all implementation projects be identified in pre-existing CWPPs is a significant hurdle for accomplishing community smoke preparedness under the CWDG. The Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA) of 2003 that drove the creation of CWPPs prioritizes hazardous fuel treatments and reducing structure ignitions. HFRA makes no mention of smoke, and smoke preparedness is not included in existing CWPP guidance. Unsurprisingly, out of $197 million awarded to 100 projects in March 2023, only a single funded CWDG project mentioned smoke preparedness in its CWPP planning project summary. No funded implementation projects include smoke preparedness efforts. (It is possible successfully funded CWPP updates will result in smoke preparedness planning that was not included in the short project summaries available online.)
The CDC provides Public Health Emergency Preparedness (PHEP) funding to state, local, and territorial public health departments. The PHEP program is designed to “strengthen national preparedness for public health emergencies including natural, biological, chemical, radiological, and nuclear incidents.” While PHEP funds are not targeted specifically for wildland fire smoke response or preparedness, they are designed for flexibility and have been successfully used to purchase air purifiers and HEPA filters. In 2017, the Missoula City-County Health Department (MCCHD) in Missoula, Montana overdrew its PHEP budget to purchase air purifiers for communities hit with hazardous smoke. The following year, MCCHD used PHEP funds to purchase replacement HEPA filters and additional air purifiers.
American Rescue Plan Funding for Schools
In March 2021, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) allocated billions of dollars to “keep schools safely open” in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools can use ARPA Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, which the Department of Education administers to states and school districts, can be used to support HVAC and filtration improvements in schools. In fact, schools are projected to spend almost $10 billion on HVAC upgrades using these funds.
While these ESSER funds are focused on reducing the spread of COVID-19, filters recommended for the fine particles in wildland fire smoke are the same ones recommended for viruses. Consequently, schools that upgrade their filtration using these funds (and in accordance with EPA or ASHRAE guidance) will also likely be better protected from wildland fire smoke. While there are many factors beyond filtration that impact indoor air quality, HVAC maintenance and filter upgrades are important interventions.
A Note About Beneficial Fire
A growing push is underway to restore ecosystem balance and reduce hazardous fuel buildup via beneficial fire, which includes cultural fires, prescribed fires, and wildfires with ecosystem benefits that are controlled but allowed to burn. These interventions, in addition to more frequent and intense wildfires, will mean additional smoke creation for years to come.
The drive to put more fire on the ground is aimed at reducing the severity of future fires and protecting “communities, critical infrastructure, watersheds, habitats, and recreational areas.” Additionally, a small but growing body of research is suggesting prescribed fire may reduce future wildland fire smoke emissions. Unsurprisingly, studies project less smoke impacts from prescribed burns than would be seen from a wildfire in the same place (which generally consume more fuels and produce more smoke).
This is a nuanced discussion, since beneficial fire creates its own smoke and there is no guarantee a wildfire will occur in a burned area before the benefits from the prescribed fire wear out and require a reburn. Prescribed fires also don’t protect communities from all future smoke impacts. An area treated with prescribed fire can still burn; even if it doesn’t, communities can still be impacted by wildfire smoke that has traveled from a fire burning thousands of miles away. In addition, questions remain about the public health impacts from prescribed fire, and much is needed to be done to protect communities from prescribed fire smoke, particularly at the scale needed to address the wildfire crisis. Recent studies from Australia have indicated health impacts from prescribed fire smoke can sometimes exceed that from wildfire smoke, and if climate change continues to worsen, the increased health burden of wildfire smoke will “undermine prescribed burning effectiveness.”
Still, if prescribed burns can limit fire duration and severity, they will lead to less smoke overall than if they had not been conducted. Wildfires may also progress more slowly across the landscape if they encounter patches of land previously treated with prescribed fire, buying more time for response and producing less smoke overall. As a result, prescribed burning is considered a tool in the arsenal to reduce future wildland fire smoke impacts. While this may be promising, currently, reduced future smoke is more a side benefit of prescribed fire rather than an objective for the burns. Most prescribed burns are planned for community fire protections and ecosystem benefits rather than reducing the probability of long duration smoke events impacting communities. Agencies conducting prescribed burning include USFS, BLM, BIA, NPS, FWS, and DoD.
Several of the topic areas described above are conducted by the federal government in support of prescribed fire.
The federal government has shown interest in better understanding smoke and its potential impacts on United States residents. However, there are gaps in federal actions and resulting opportunities that, if taken, could lead to stronger protections from the known health impacts of wildland fire smoke. If the government takes a more proactive role in reducing public exposure to smoke, future fire seasons may bring less illness and death.
Policy to Protect Vulnerable Populations
Notably, policies or rules to protect workers or school children are not on the list of federal smoke-related actions. The federal government is investing heavily in smoke research, situational awareness, and hazardous fuels mitigation but has thus far not implemented rules mandating protection from unhealthy air quality. As a result, states have stepped in with piecemeal protections, and a person’s level of regulatory protection depends on their jurisdiction.
Currently, only California and Oregon mandate employers protect workers from wildland fire smoke. (Washington is in the process of finalizing a similar rulemaking to replace an emergency rule that expired in September 2022.) Protections vary among these states based on air quality, work environment, and enforcement.
This fragmented landscape could be rectified by a federal requirement to limit worker wildland fire smoke exposure. In a 2022 consensus study report, a NASEM committee recommended OSHA set standards for wildfire smoke exposure and mandate employers protect workers. As part of that report, the committee also recommended that Congress expand OSHA’s authority to cover “unpaid volunteers, family members of farm employees, domestic workers in residential settings, gig workers, and many workers now categorized as independent contractors,” all of whom are not currently protected under OSHA authority.
While there are no EPA or OSHA indoor air quality standards for particulate matter or wildland fire smoke, ASHRAE is preparing guidance for commercial buildings that localities can adopt to better protect indoor workers and school children from smoke’s harmful effects. (Formerly known as the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, ASHRAE develops and publishes standards and guidance for the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) industry.) In 2021, ASHRAE released a framework for commercial buildings and schools to protect occupants from wildland fire smoke. At time of publication, ASHRAE’s formal guidance, Guideline 44-202x: Protecting Building Occupants from Smoke During Wildfire and Prescribed Burn Events, is available for public review. Experts from several federal agencies (EPA, NIST, CDC-NIOSH, GSA) are members of the ASHRAE committee that created the forthcoming guidance. States and localities can adopt or encourage the adoption of this guidance to help their communities better prepare for smoke events.
Funding and Legislation for Community Assistance
While FEMA provides multiple funding opportunities for pre-and-post fire hazard mitigation work, wildland fire smoke is not identified as a hazard that can trigger a federal emergency declaration under the Stafford Act and FEMA does not currently fund wildland fire smoke mitigation projects. The S.2387 Wildfire Smoke Emergency Declaration Act of 2023 aims to address this by authorizing the President to declare a smoke emergency and enable FEMA and other federal agencies to “provide emergency assistance to states and local communities that are or will be affected by the emergency, including grants, equipment, supplies, and personnel and resources for establishing smoke shelters, air purifiers, and additional air monitoring sites.“
Another introduced bill, the Cleaner Air Spaces Act of 2023, would direct $30 million to air pollution control agencies via EPA grants for smoke preparedness activities.
In fact, multiple bills have been recently introduced in Congress to address community wildland fire smoke protections and smoke forecasting. None of these bills have made it out of committee as of publication.
It is beyond the scope of this piece to analyze proposed legislation. However, effective community assistance will require additional resources. While the federal government has shown interest in helping communities, a lack of dedicated funding means state, local and Tribal governments interested in smoke-readiness must mine their own budgets, apply for competitive grants from government and nonprofit organizations, and occasionally solicit donations to protect vulnerable community members. As a result, a community’s wildland fire smoke protection often depends on the capacity of state and local government staff and nonprofit partners to apply for grants.
In rural areas, that capacity can be particularly hard to come by. For example, the five-person Central Montana Health District provides public health services for five counties. Also in Montana, the single public health nurse for Granite County is based out of neighboring Deer Lodge County. Communities without persons able to engage in the competitive funding environment for wildland fire smoke response will have lesser public health protections.
Local health departments and air pollution control programs receive federal funding, but it is already too little for the programs to function without additional grants and state and local support. Public health has long been chronically underfunded in the United States., and local health departments do not have the resources on hand to deal with the added threat posed by increasing wildland fire smoke. The federal government is investing billions of dollars to address fuel buildup in our forests in the hope it will lead to reduced catastrophic fire and smoke. Programmatic funding to help communities prepare now for smoke could go a long way to reducing impacts from the smoke we are currently experiencing.
Improved Respirators for the Public
Several agencies recommend the public use NIOSH-certified N95 respirators to protect themselves from the fine particulate matter in wildland fire smoke. However, these respirators are designed for workers, not the public. A 2022 NASEM consensus study report sponsored by EPA, CDC, DOS, and the CDC Foundation identified several shortcomings of N95s as the only respirator for public use, including comfort, limited sizing, incompatibility with facial hair, and incompatibility with some outdoor occupations, such as wildland firefighting. Also, in a work environment with a respiratory protection program, workers undergo a “fit test” to ensure the respirator seals tightly to their face and, when used correctly, will provide the promised protection. The NASEM committee recommended the government establish a research and approval program to guide the development of innovative respiratory protective devices designed for a wide range of public users, including infants, children, and the frail elderly that can provide adequate protection in absence of formal fit testing.
As a positive step toward following some of the NASEM report’s recommendations, NIOSH (collaborating with NASA and Capital Consulting Corporation) recently launched a crowd-sourcing competition to improve respirator fit evaluations and make them more user-friendly for the public. However, there remain many recommendations in the NASEM report that the federal government could take on to improve the public and workers’ protections from wildland fire smoke.
Improved/Comprehensive Communication to Inform the Public About Health Risks and Mitigation Strategies
This review of publicly available information about the federal government’s engagement with wildland fire smoke took us through hundreds of websites and publications. A significant amount of work has gone into characterizing wildland fire smoke movement and identifying prescribed burning windows. Work is also being done to understand the tradeoffs of prescribed fire and wildfire smoke emissions. Meanwhile, significant efforts have been put toward understanding the health and economic burden of wildland fire smoke and how we can better protect people from its harms.
During wildfires, smoke is treated as a hazard across agencies, and the public receives information about how to protect themselves from its impacts. During prescribed fires, the smoke is treated as more of a nuisance or a throwaway concern from land management agencies. News releases about upcoming prescribed fires may mention smoke being visible or present over roadways, but rarely include any recommendations for protective measures the public can take to minimize potential health impacts. Meanwhile, the USFS Wildfire Crisis Strategy documents lean heavily on the need for more prescribed fire, but do not mention the impact from prescribed fire smoke on the public.
In addition, there are many government sites and documents with advice for reducing wildfire risk and creating fire adapted communities (FACs), but often, this advice is limited to protection from flames. (Of note, on the USFS FAC site, the only mention of smoke states: “Fuel reduction projects often involve smoke, so its important residents understand the value of fuel treatments and tolerate the temporary inconvenience of smoke that could reduce the long-term risk of wildfire.”)
These are missed communication opportunities. Anywhere we talk about fire, we should talk about smoke and how to stay protected from its impacts. The more the public sees the government treating smoke seriously and offering practical guidance for staying protected from its impacts, the more likely we can reduce harms from both wildfire and prescribed fire smoke and increase the amount of prescribed fire on the landscape. On a positive note, fireadapted.org, run by the Fire Adapted Communities Network (which counts several federal agencies and collaborations among its members), includes public health and smoke concerns as a key component to fire preparedness.
The EPA, CDC and partner agencies have done the work to create actionable guidance for the public. Anywhere the government writes about wildland fire, it should include the health risks associated with the smoke and the steps the public can take to prepare.The government and media will often breathlessly recount the number of homes lost to fire, but data relaying the number of deaths and illnesses caused by wildland fire smoke are generally missing from public discourse. Too often, this information is relegated to estimates in academic journals and increases in odds and relative risk ratios that are not lay friendly. A recent FAS policy recommendation would see the CDC and EPA create a nationwide data dashboard showing mortality and morbidity attributed to wildland fire smoke. This type of data, presented clearly to the public, could help policy makers and the public better understand the significant harms of wildland fire smoke, which would hopefully lead to more investment in community protections on both the federal and local level.
Wildland fire smoke is a health threat that will return year after year. More wildlands and more homes will burn, and residents across the country will bear that burden via smoke that pools in valleys and travels thousands of miles. The federal government has shown interest in understanding and forecasting wildland fire smoke, and many agencies are taking part in researching smoke’s health impacts and relaying guidance to the public. However, there remain significant funding gaps, both for agency actions and for community assistance. Despite annual death tolls in the thousands, smoke from wildland fires takes a backseat in many fire-oriented federal discussions (for example, EPA and CDC only recently gained seats on the Wildland Fire Leadership Council, which has been around for decades). Hopefully, this will begin to change. The Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission, tasked by Congress to form “federal policy recommendations and strategies on ways to better prevent, manage, suppress and recover from wildfires,” is expected to release their recommendations this fall. With a workgroup focused on public health, we look forward to seeing how the Commission recommends improving the government’s response to the wildland fire smoke crisis.
Impact Fellow Sarah Coefield contributed to this issue brief during her residency at FAS and prior to beginning her assignment at the Environmental Protection Agency.
About This Analysis
NOTE 1: This investigation did not dive into budgetary expenditures, which likely vary widely among agencies. For many agencies, wildland fire smoke work is more tangential to their overall mission. In addition, for EPA, at least, wildland fire smoke work is conducted on the side without a dedicated funding source or staff position.
NOTE 2: This is only an overview of activities by the federal United States government. State, local, Tribal, university, nonprofit and international experts are active in the wildland fire space and contribute significantly to the breadth of wildland fire smoke knowledge and efforts to protect public health.
NOTE 3: This analysis is based on publicly available information to the best of our knowledge at time of publication. It may not encompass all wildland fire smoke efforts at all agencies.
- BLM: Bureau of Land Management
- CDC: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- EPA: Environmental Protection Agency
- FEMA: Federal Emergency Management Agency
- GSA: General Services Administration
- HRSA: Health Resources and Services Administration
- NASA: National Aeronautics and Space Administration
- NOAA: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
- NPS: National Park Service
- DHS: Department of Homeland Security
- DoD: Department of Defense
- DOE: Department of Energy
- DOI: Department of Interior
- USGS: United States Geological Survey
- NFS: National Science Foundation
- NIEHS: National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
- NIH: National Institutes of Health
- NIOSH: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
- NIST: National Institute of Standards and Technology
- OSHA: Occupational Safety and Health Administration
- USFS: United States Forest Service
Extreme heat is the number one weather-related killer of Americans, yet receives minimal targeted federal support and dedicated funding for planning, mitigation, and recovery.
This summer, 130 million Americans were placed under some type of heat alert. National records for heat continue to be shattered each month, with July estimated to be the hottest month recorded on Earth. This relentless heat will continue to affect millions of Americans in August and for every summer to come.
Extreme heat is the number one weather-related killer of Americans, yet receives minimal targeted federal support and dedicated funding for planning, mitigation, and recovery. Unlike other weather-related disasters, the consequences of extreme heat are hard to respond to and challenging to account for under current federal law. For starters, the Stafford Act does not consider extreme heat to be a Major Disaster (Sec. 102), barring sufficient coordinated federal action. Further, extreme heat is not only risky to infrastructure, like our power grids, roads, and homes, but also has devastating direct impacts on public health.
Prolonged exposure to extreme heat increases the risk of developing potentially fatal heat-related illnesses, such as heat stroke where the human body reaches dangerously high internal temperatures. If a person cannot cool down, especially when the nights bring no relief from the heat, this high core temperature can result in organ failure, cognitive damage, and death. These human health impacts are harder to account for in benefit-cost analyses that drive disaster preparedness funding allocations. Extreme heat is a crisis that impacts everyone. However, certain populations are more vulnerable to the increased health risks from heat, including older adults, outdoor workers, those with preexisting health conditions, low income communities, and people experiencing homelessness.
Extreme heat also creates conditions that increase the likelihood and severity of other natural hazards, such as droughts and wildfires, further threatening public health. These compounding disasters put a major strain on national and global agricultural systems and threaten food security. This is particularly true for low-income communities as “heatflation” makes staple foods more unaffordable.
We can better prevent, manage, and recover from extreme heat. With increased federal attention towards the effects of extreme heat and climate adaptation and resilience, there is an opportunity to take action. Federal policy can be a powerful lever of systems change, ensuring better coordination across federal agencies, state and local governments, and public and private sectors to beat the heat.
Starting now, the Federation of American Scientists is launching an Open Call for Extreme Heat Policy Ideas to source policy solutions to improve how the federal government coordinates a comprehensive response to heat. FAS is collecting ideas throughout Fall 2023 to prepare effectively for the next heat season. More information can be found by following this link.
FAS has completed a preliminary diagnosis of six opportunity areas for innovative extreme heat policy ideas that can make the most substantial impact on American heat resiliency: Infrastructure, Workforce, Public Health, Food Security, Planning and Management, and Data and Indices.
Many Americans offset heat through increasing their use of air conditioning. Yet, this creates many issues, including the risk of overloading our electrical grids, equity concerns surrounding who has continuous access to air conditioning, and variance in the effectiveness of different air conditioning units. 1 in 4 Americans experience energy insecurity which puts them at risk of energy shut-offs, and Americans at large hold $19.3 billion in energy debt as of March 2023.
Further, AC units fail to address fundamental issues in infrastructure, such as the poor design of buildings or lack of building codes that specify maximum temperature inside buildings. A study done by CAPA Strategies and the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management on heat in public housing found that even units with AC saw observed temperatures consistently greater than 80℉, putting the health of residents at risk. Even more alarming, research has projected that in the event of a multi-day blackout during a heatwave, the heat-related mortality rate in Phoenix, Atlanta, and Detroit would increase dramatically. In Phoenix, more than 50% of the urban population would require medical attention. This calls into question an AC-only heat mitigation strategy. Rather, how we design and build our infrastructure can make our communities more heat resilient.
Extreme heat presents multiple challenges to our current infrastructure, including concerns over grid and transportation resilience, lack of building codes for heat, lack of well-researched passive cooling technologies (i.e. non-air conditioning) to combat heat, and urban planning and design to beat the heat. Infrastructure investments, such as increasing grid resilience and creating more urban green space and nature-based solutions, can serve as preventive measures to keep communities cool as temperatures continue to rise.
With the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, several federal agencies have created programs that could address infrastructure concerns surrounding extreme heat.
- The Department of Energy has allotted $2.5 billion in grants to support grid resilience programs designed to reduce impacts from extreme weather and natural disasters.
- The Department of Energy Weatherization Assistance Program increases energy efficiency in homes to reduce costs to low-income households.
- The Department of Transportation PROTECT grants provides $1.4 billion to improving surface transportation resilience from natural hazards.
- The Department of Housing and Urban Development provides $4.8 billion for green and resilient retrofits of assisted multifamily properties.
- The Department of Agriculture has allotted $250 million in urban and community forestry grants to provide funding to increase urban canopy in disadvantaged communities.
- The Federal Emergency Management Agency has the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program to support hazard mitigation projects.
- The Department of Health and Human Services created the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to assist families with energy costs.
While these programs provide necessary support and funding to address infrastructure concerns, multiple gaps still persist. First, federal agencies may have capital but are not coordinated in their approach to addressing extreme heat and proactively building community resilience to heat. The Equitable Long-Term Recovery and Resilience Interagency Working Group has found difficulties in interagency coordination of notices of funding opportunities, place-based engagement for deployment of funds, direct technical assistance to communities, and maintenance of continuous sources of funding along a project’s timeline (i.e. ensure once infrastructure is built that there are people to upkeep passive infrastructure such as green spaces or people to staff active infrastructure like cooling centers). Without strategy and clarity for how communities should proceed and what they should invest in, there will be no sustainable change in infrastructure across the nation.
Second, nuances in specific programs and the way grants are chosen through benefit-cost analysis (i.e. greater value to property damage over harder to quantify measures like impacts on human lives) may limit funding that goes to projects specifically focused on extreme heat. For example, while communities have been told that FEMA’s BRIC can fund extreme heat resilience, BRIC grant applications have been repeatedly rejected for extreme heat-related projects, a consequence of the “cost-effective” statute for BRIC. Even if a cooling center is approved, BRIC money cannot staff the center in the event of a disaster.
Third, many jurisdictions around the country lack building codes that specify a maximum indoor temperature inside buildings as well as required strategies to mitigate extreme heat – contributing to heightened risk for individuals developing heat-related illnesses.
Rising temperatures place many members of the workforce, such as farmworkers and construction workers, at increased risk for heat-related illnesses. Extreme heat also leads to immense losses in workplace productivity, with research estimating a total annual loss of $100 billion to the U.S. economy. Without any measures to address the impacts of extreme heat in the future, this figure could double to $200 billion by 2030 and $500 billion by 2050. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) within the Department of Labor recently released a heat hazard alert which provides information to employers about how they should be protecting employees in extreme heat conditions as well as information on employees’ rights. With recent direction from the White House, OSHA will also increase its inspections and enforcement of violations in industries at higher risk for extreme heat, such as agriculture. Yet, OSHA is historically under-resourced in its ability to effectively carry out inspections and enforcement, with each inspector now responsible for securing the rights of 200,000 workers.
This under-resourcing extends to OSHA’s ability to create a national standard for protection against extreme heat which is still years off from implementation. This leaves employee protection to state-level standards. Some states, including California and Oregon, have issued heat standards to protect workers. Yet, other states, such as Texas, have eliminated the requirement for employers to provide basic safety measures like water breaks. In this current system, employees are being put at significant risk. Providing employees consistent breaks for water and shade while working in extreme heat conditions is a simple way to mitigate these risks while lowering costs of workers’ compensation for employers in the event of a work-exposure related heat illness.
Each summer, extreme heat can cost the healthcare industry upwards of $1 billion dollars. Exposure to extreme heat, and often accompanying high humidity, can cause multiple heat-related illnesses, including heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. The risks of developing severe symptoms are heightened by social and environmental factors, such as lack of access to air conditioning, shade, or transportation to medical centers. Individual factors, including types of medication being taken, can also increase sensitivity towards heat. Further, rising temperatures exacerbate negative mental health outcomes, such as fatigue and aggression.
When patients with a heat-illness are admitted to the hospital, there are numerous limitations with coordination and response. Diagnostic codes, used for insurance claims, exist for heat-related illness. However, physicians may not recognize the symptoms of heat-related illnesses and instead diagnose and assign other related codes, such as dehydration. Therefore, patients may not be properly diagnosed and treated. This also leads to significant underreporting of the effects of extreme heat on health.
Quick coordination and response by health care professionals is critical in preventing long-term damage. A nationwide survey by Americares found that less than 20% of staff in clinics feel that their clinics are “very resilient” to extreme weather. During the Northwest Heat Dome in 2021, a lack of coordinated public health preparation led to 229 deaths, more than any other disaster that year. In order to increase preparedness and timely response, it is essential for the public health workforce to be educated on best practices in responding to heat-illnesses. For example, after the Northwest Heat Dome, Seattle has begun to implement new plans for hospitals to meet to review best practices if extreme heat is forecasted, including checking whether centers have ice and body bags available.
Extreme heat can also have unexpected consequences on public health. For instance, extreme heat creates favorable conditions for infectious disease carriers, such as ticks and fungal spores, to exist in areas of the country where they were historically unable to survive. Transmission of disease is also more likely as people congregate in community hubs, such as cooling centers or beaches.
As heat waves become more frequent and intense across the nation, it’s critical to create standardized coordination efforts. The Office of Climate Change and Health Equity serves as a resource hub, producing a seasonal Climate and Health Outlook and the new Heat-Related Emergency Medical Services Activation Surveillance Dashboard. Yet, they are not federally funded and are therefore limited in their capacity to coordinate heat and health resilience. In terms of public health preparedness resources, the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) Climate Ready States and Cities Initiative can only support nine states, one city, and one county, despite 40 jurisdictions having applied. The Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) found increasing funding from $10 million to $110 million is required to support all states, and improve climate surveillance.
The threat of extreme heat speaks to a critical need for a funded agency or office to take a leadership role in the following three efforts: 1) strengthening holistic natural disaster resiliency and response efforts within the healthcare and public health sectors through interagency collaboration 2) orchestrating and supporting efforts to close information gaps, synthesize data, and identify practical applications of information on natural disasters and climate threats and 3) coordinate efforts to develop communication and education on climate-related health threats.
Extreme heat and its exacerbation of other natural hazards, including droughts, can have a significant impact on our agricultural productivity and food security. The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the impact of large-scale emergencies on our national and global food supply chains and distribution systems.
Increases in temperature may directly cause a reduction in crop growth and agricultural yields by affecting plants’ growth cycle. Rising temperatures affect livestock, potentially leading to increased mortality and reduced production of certain products, such as milk and eggs. It also impacts the way food can be stored and transported. Changes in food supply can ultimately increase the costs of certain foods and thus may not be affordable for everyone, particularly low-income populations.
Extreme heat also contributes to the creation of favorable conditions for droughts, increasing the risk for crop failure. For instance, in Texas and the Midwest, extended droughts are causing farmers to be concerned about their agricultural yields and placing too heavy of a reliance on irrigation systems. Over a thousand communities are currently under disaster designation by the USDA this summer because of extended drought exacerbated by extreme heat.
It is critical for resources to be devoted to the research and development of strategies to improve the heat resilience of crops and livestock given the economic unsustainability of evergreen emergency disaster assistance. A report by the Perry World House Center recommended specific strategies including restorative agriculture practices, diversifying crop production, and learning from indigenous agricultural practices. The US Department of Agriculture’s Climate Hubs provide information on climate resilience to inform decision-making by natural resource and agricultural managers – and would benefit from additional appropriations. Additionally, the USDA’s Partnerships for Climate Smart Commodities is investing $1 billion into financing pilot projects that use climate-smart practices, yet no projects focus explicitly on extreme heat resiliency.
Planning and Management
Despite its immense impacts, extreme heat is not considered a hazard that can trigger a federal emergency declaration under the Stafford Act. Many agencies, such as the Department of Interior and Housing and Urban Development, are not able to unlock funds without an emergency declaration and supplemental appropriations from Congress, illustrating the need to create more active resilience measures for these agencies to strategically act on extreme heat.
The lack of specific staff within agencies and overarching federal leadership for heat resilience, response, and recovery limits an effective and coordinated response. Communities need agencies to have the tools, guidance, and technical assistance needed for implementation of extreme heat resilience. Lastly, having no federal office with national responsibility for extreme heat presents a major risk as certain parts of the country reach the upper limits of human habitability despite all resilience efforts triggering potentially destabilizing internal climate migrations.
Within local and state governments, there is often no specific agency or officer responsible for heat. Currently, only a handful of local jurisdictions are beginning to experiment with different organizational structures to address heat, such as the appointment of a designated Chief Heat Officer in Miami-Dade, Florida. On the state and local level, there is a lack of research into which organizational structure is most effective and efficient at extreme heat mitigation and response. In addition, there’s no incentive from the federal government for local jurisdictions to create effective heat response personnel.
Finally, many states and local jurisdictions fail to plan for heat as a part of their Hazard Mitigation Plans, often required by FEMA to unlock disaster preparedness and recovery investments. Yet, there are currently no best practices on how to plan and respond, beyond high-level, non-specific guidance documents from the CDC and Environmental Protection Agency, leaving each city to create their own plans of action.
Data and Indices
While heat blankets entire regions, its impacts are not felt equitably across the population. Urban heat island effects can make parts of cities far hotter – thus worsening the disaster for people residing in these zones. Further, there is a lack of consensus over how to name, categorize, and communicate the severity of extreme heat events. Heat is very context dependent. Temperature is not the only consideration in determining the severity of heat. Levels of humidity are an integral factor in determining the extent to which the human body can control internal temperature.
Inadequate data collection can result in underestimating the severity of heat, particularly in urban neighborhoods. Localized factors, including neighborhood design and the infrastructure of individual buildings can exacerbate the severity and consequences of heat. Within one city or local jurisdiction, data for heat can vary by multiple degrees. When these temperatures are not accurately accounted for, it can contribute to lack of efficient planning and emergency management. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Center for Disease Control created the National Integrated Heat Health Information System (NIHHIS) to provide tools and information on extreme heat. While NIHHIS produces useful information, such as the vulnerability mapping tool and urban heat island mapping campaign with the EPA, there is still a gap in applying this information and connecting localities with useful data and information on which strategies are most effective at combating extreme heat. Since this issue is dependent on context and locality, it’s crucial to have a system that collects nuanced data that tracks all of the impacts of extreme heat.
Issues in communicating extreme heat’s severity arise because different heat indices use different standards and ultimately communicate output at varying levels of severity. This contributes to confusion surrounding what temperatures should constitute extreme heat. For instance, heat index calculations are a common measurement that take humidity into account. However, the formula assumes that people are resting in the shade. On the other hand, Wet Bulb Globe temperature calculations use direct sunshine measurements and assume people are active. Both of these measurements assume people are healthy. Not only does this create confusion about which index to rely on, it also excludes and may underestimate the severity of heat in certain populations. Naming heat waves is one solution that’s been explored in Spain to make it easier to explain the severity of extreme heat to the public.
Extreme heat presents multiple challenges to our planning, response, and management systems. While the consequences of extreme heat can be deadly, they can be avoided with a coordinated and comprehensive federal response. If you’re feeling inspired to act, submit an idea to our Open Call for Extreme Heat Policy Ideas here.
As both the House and Senate gear up to vote on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), FAS is launching this live blog post to track all proposals around artificial intelligence (AI) that have been included in the NDAA. In this rapidly evolving field, these provisions indicate how AI now plays a pivotal role in our defense strategies and national security framework. This tracker will be updated following major updates.
Senate NDAA. This table summarizes the provisions related to AI from the version of the Senate NDAA that advanced out of committee on July 11. Links to the section of the bill describing these provisions can be found in the “section” column. Provisions that have been added in the manager’s package are in red font.
House NDAA. This table summarizes the provisions related to AI from the version of the House NDAA that advanced out of committee. Links to the section of the bill describing these provisions can be found in the “section” column.
Funding Comparison. The following tables compare the funding requested in the President’s budget to funds that are authorized in current House and Senate versions of the NDAA. All amounts are in thousands of dollars.
The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has sought public input for the Biden administration’s National AI Strategy, acknowledging the potential benefits and risks of advanced AI. The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) was happy to recommend specific actions for federal agencies to safeguard Americans’ rights and safety. With U.S. companies creating powerful frontier AI models, the federal government must guide this technology’s growth toward public benefit and risk mitigation.
Recommendation 1: OSTP should work with a suitable agency to develop and implement a pre-deployment risk assessment protocol that applies to any frontier AI model.
Before launching a frontier AI system, developers must ensure safety, trustworthiness, and reliability through pre-deployment risk assessment. This protocol aims to thoroughly analyze potential risks and vulnerabilities in AI models before deployment.
We advocate for increased funding towards the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to enhance its risk measurement capacity and develop robust benchmarks for AI model risk assessment. Building upon NIST’s AI Risk Management Framework (RMF) will standardize metrics for evaluation incorporating various cases such as open-source models, academic research, and fine-tuning of models which differ from larger labs like OpenAI’s GPT-4.
We propose the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), under Section 5 of the FTC Act, implement and enforce this pre-deployment risk assessment strategy. The FTC’s role to prevent unfair or deceptive practices in commerce is aligned with mitigating potential risks from AI systems.
Recommendation 2: Adherence to the appropriate risk management framework should be compulsory for any AI-related project that receives federal funding.
The U.S. government, as a significant funder of AI through contracts and grants, has both a responsibility and opportunity. Responsibility: to ensure that its AI applications meet a high bar for risk management. Opportunity: to enhance a culture of safety in AI development more broadly. Adherence to a risk management framework should be a prerequisite for AI projects seeking federal funds.
Currently, voluntary guidelines such as NIST’s AI RMF exist, but we propose making these compulsory. Agencies should require contractors to document and verify the risk management practices in place for the contract. For agencies that do not have their own guidelines, the NIST AI RMF should be used. And the NSF should require documentation of the grantee’s compliance with the NIST AI RMF in grant applications for AI projects. This approach will ensure all federally funded AI initiatives maintain a high bar for risk management.
Recommendation 3: NSF should increase its funding for “trustworthy AI” R&D.
“Trustworthy AI” refers to AI systems that are reliable, safe, transparent, privacy-enhanced, and unbiased. While NSF is a key non-military funder of AI R&D in the U.S., our rough estimates indicate that its investment in fields promoting trustworthiness has remained relatively static, accounting for only 10-15% of all AI grants. Given its $800 million annual AI-related budget, we recommend that NSF direct a larger share of grants towards research in trustworthy AI.
To enable this shift, NSF could stimulate trustworthy AI research through specific solicitations; launch targeted programs in this area; and incorporate a “trustworthy AI” section in funding applications, prompting researchers to outline the trustworthiness of their projects. This would help evaluate AI project impacts and promote proposals with significant potential in trustworthy AI. Lastly, researchers could be requested or mandated to apply the NIST AI RMF during their studies.
Recommendation 4: FedRAMP should be broadened to cover AI applications contracted for by the federal government.
The Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) is a government-wide initiative that standardizes security protocols for cloud services. Given the rising utilization of AI services in federal operations, a similar system of security standards should apply to these services, since they are responsible for managing highly sensitive data related to national security and individual privacy.
Expanding FedRAMP’s mandate to include AI services is a logical next step in ensuring the secure integration of advanced technologies into federal operations. Applying a framework like FedRAMP to AI services would involve establishing robust security standards specific to AI, such as secure data handling, model transparency, and robustness against adversarial attacks. The expanded FedRAMP program would streamline AI integration into federal operations and avoid repetitive security assessments.
Recommendation 5: The Department of Homeland Security should establish an AI incidents database.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) needs to create a centralized AI Incidents Database, detailing AI-related breaches, failures and misuse across industries. Its existing authorization under the Homeland Security Act of 2002 makes DHS capable of this role. This database would increase understanding, mitigate risks, and build trust in AI systems’ safety and security.
Voluntary reporting from AI stakeholders should be encouraged while preserving data confidentiality. For effectiveness, anonymized or aggregated data should be shared with AI developers, researchers, and policymakers to better understand AI risks. DHS could use existing databases such as the one maintained by the Partnership on AI and Center for Security and Emerging Technologies, as well as adapt reporting methods from global initiatives like the Financial Services Information Sharing and Analysis Center.
Recommendation 6: OSTP should work with agencies to streamline the process of granting Interested Agency Waivers to AI researchers on J-1 visas.
The ongoing global competition in AI necessitates attracting and retaining a diverse, highly skilled talent pool. The US J-1 Exchange Visitor Program, often used by visiting researchers, requires some participants to return home for two years before applying for permanent residence.
Federal agencies can waive this requirement for certain individuals via an “Interested Government Agency” (IGA) request. Agencies should establish a transparent, predictable process for AI researchers to apply for such waivers. The OSTP should collaborate with agencies to streamline this process. Taking cues from the Department of Defense’s structured application process, including a dedicated webpage, application checklist, and sample sponsor letter, could prove highly beneficial for improving the transition of AI talent to permanent residency in the US.
Review the details of these proposals in our public comment.
The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) has identified several domains in the transportation and infrastructure space that retain a plethora of unsolved opportunities ripe for breakthrough innovation.
Transportation is not traditionally viewed as a research- and development-led field, with less than 0.7% of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) annual budget dedicated to R&D activities. The majority of DOT’s R&D funds are disbursed by modal operating administrators mandated to execute on distinct funding priorities rather than a collective, integrated vision of transforming the nation’s infrastructure across 50 states and localities.
Historically, a small percentage of these R&D funds have supported and developed promising, cross-cutting initiatives, such as the Federal Highway Administration’s Exploratory Advanced Research programs deploying artificial intelligence to better understand driver behavior and applying novel data integration techniques to enhance freight logistics. Yet, the scope of these programs has not been designed to scale discoveries into broad deployment, limiting the impact of innovation and technology in transforming transportation and infrastructure in the United States.
As a result, transportation and infrastructure retain a plethora of unaddressed opportunities – from reducing the 40,000 annual vehicle-related fatalities, to improving freight logistics through ports, highways, and rail, to achieving a net zero carbon transportation system, to building infrastructure resilient to the impacts of climate change and severe weather. The reasons for these persistent challenges are numerous: low levels of federal R&D spending, fragmentation across state and local government, risk-averse procurement practices, sluggish commercial markets, and more. When innovations do emerge in this field, they suffer from two valleys of death: one to bring new ideas out of the lab into commercialization, and the second to bring successful deployments of those technologies to scale.
The United States needs a concerted national innovation pipeline designed to fill this gap, exploring early-stage, moonshot research while nurturing breakthroughs from concept to deployment. An Advanced Research Projects Agency-Infrastructure would deliver on this mission. Modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Infrastructure (ARPA-I) will operate nimbly and with rigorous program management and deep technical expertise to tackle the biggest infrastructure challenges and overcome entrenched market failures. Solutions would cut across traditional transportation modes (e.g. highways, rail, aviation, maritime, pipelines etc) and would include innovative new infrastructure technologies, materials, systems, capabilities, or processes.
The list of domain areas below reflects priorities for DOT as well as areas where there is significant opportunity for breakthrough innovation:
Key Domain Areas
Despite progress made since 1975, dramatic reductions in roadway fatalities remain a core, persistent challenge. In 2021, an estimated 42,915 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes, with an estimated 31,785 people killed in the first nine months of 2022. The magnitude of this challenge is articulated in DOT’s most recent National Roadway Safety Strategy, a document that begins with a statement from Secretary Buttigieg: “The status quo is unacceptable, and it is preventable… Zero is the only acceptable number of deaths and serious injuries on our roadways.”
Example topical areas include but are not limited to: urban roadway safety; advanced vehicle driver assistance systems; driver alcohol detection systems; vehicle design; street design; speeding and speed limits; and V2X (vehicle-to-everything) communications and networking technology.
Key Questions for Consideration:
- What steps can be taken to create safer urban mobility spaces for everyone, and what role can technology play in helping create the future we envision?
- What capabilities, systems, and datasets are we missing right now that would unlock more targeted safety interventions?
Rural communities possess their own unique safety challenges stemming from road design and signage, speed limits, and other factors; and data from the Federal Highway Administration shows that “while only 19% of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, 43% of all roadway fatalities occur on rural roads, and the fatality rate on rural roads is almost 2 times higher than on urban roads.”
Example topical areas include but are not limited to: improved information collection and management systems; design and evaluation tools for two-lane highways and other geometric design decisions; augmented visibility; mitigating or anti-rollover crash solutions; and enhanced emergency response.
Key Questions for Consideration:
- How can rural-based safety solutions address the resource and implementation issues that are faced by local transportation agencies?
- How can existing innovations be leveraged to support the advancement of road safety in rural settings?
Resilient & Climate Prepared Infrastructure
Modern roads, bridges, and transportation are designed to withstand storms that, at the time of their construction, had a probability of occurring once in 100 years; today, climate change has made extreme weather events commonplace. In 2020 alone, the U.S. suffered 22 high-impact weather disasters that each cost over $1 billion in damages. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City and New Jersey subways with a 14-foot storm surge, millions were left without their primary mode of transportation for a week. Meanwhile, rising sea levels are likely to impact both marine and air transportation, as 13 of the 47 largest U.S. airports have at least one runway within 12 feet of the current sea level. Additionally, the persistent presence of wildfires–which are burning an average of 7 million acres annually across the United States, more than double the average in the 1990s–dramatically reshapes the transportation network in acute ways and causes downstream damage through landslides, flooding, and other natural events.
These trends are likely to continue as climate change exacerbates the intensity and scope of these events. The Department of Transportation is well-positioned to introduce systems-level improvements to the resilience of our nation’s infrastructure.
Example topical areas include but are not limited to: High-performance long-life, advanced materials that increase resiliency and reduce maintenance and reconstruction needs, especially materials for roads, rail, and ports; nature-based protective strategies such as constructed marshes; novel designs for multi-modal hubs or other logistics/supply chain redundancy; efficient and dynamic mechanisms to optimize the relocation of transportation assets; intensive maintenance, preservation, prediction, and degradation analysis methods; and intelligent disaster-resilient infrastructure countermeasures.
Key Questions for Consideration:
- How can we ensure that innovations in this domain yield processes and technologies that are flexible and adaptive enough to ward against future uncertainties related to climate-related disasters?
- How can we factor in the different climate resilience needs of both urban and rural communities?
Advancing the systems, tools, and capabilities for digital infrastructure to reflect and manage the built environment has the power to enable improved asset maintenance and operations across all levels of government, at scale. Advancements in this field would make using our infrastructure more seamless for transit, freight, pedestrians, and more. Increased data collection from or about vehicle movements, for example, enables user-friendly and demand-responsive traffic management, dynamic curb management for personal vehicles, transit and delivery transportation modes, congestion pricing, safety mapping and targeted interventions, and rail and port logistics. When data is accessible by local departments of transportation and municipalities, it can be harnessed to improve transportation operations and public safety through crash detection as well as to develop Smart Cities and Communities that utilize user-focused mobility services; connected and automated vehicles; electrification across transportation modes, and intelligent, sensor-based infrastructure to measure and manage age-old problems like potholes, air pollution, traffic, parking, and safety.
Example topical areas include but are not limited to: traffic management; curb management; congestion pricing; accessibility; mapping for safety; rail management; port logistics; and transportation system/electric grid coordination.
Key Questions for Consideration:
- How might we leverage data and data systems to radically improve mobility and our transportation system across all modes?
Expediting and Upgrading Construction Methods
Infrastructure projects are fraught with expensive delays and overrun budgets. In the United States, fewer than 1 in 3 contractors report finishing projects on time and within budgets, with 70% citing coordination at the site of construction as the primary reason. In the words of one industry executive, “all [of the nation’s] major projects have cost and schedule issues … the truth is these are very high-risk and difficult projects. Conditions change. It is impossible to estimate it accurately.” But can process improvements and other innovations make construction cheaper, better, faster, and easier?
Example topical areas include but are not limited to: augmented forecasting and modeling techniques; prefabricated or advanced robotic fabrication, modular, and adaptable structures and systems such as bridge sub- and superstructures; real-time quality control and assurance technologies for accelerated construction, materials innovation; new pavement technologies; bioretention; tunneling; underground infrastructure mapping; novel methods for bridge engineering, building information modeling (BIM), coastal, wind, and offshore engineering; stormwater systems; and computational methods in structural engineering, structural sensing, control, and asset management.
Key Questions for Consideration:
- What innovations are more critical to the accelerated construction requirements of the future?
Our national economic strength and quality of life depend on the safe and efficient movement of goods throughout our nation’s borders and beyond. Logistic systems—the interconnected webs of businesses, workers, infrastructure processes, and practices that underlie the sorting, transportation, and distribution of goods must operate with efficiency and resilience. . When logistics systems are disrupted by events such as public health crises, extreme weather, workforce challenges, or cyberattacks, goods are delayed, costs increase, and Americans’ daily lives are affected. The Biden Administration issued Executive Order 14017 calling for a review of the transportation and logistics industrial base. DOT released the Freight and Logistics Supply Chain Assessment in February 2022, spotlighting a range of actions that DOT envisions to support a resilient 21st-century freight and logistics supply chain for America.
Topical areas include but are not limited to: freight infrastructure, including ports, roads, airports, and railroads; data and research; rules and regulations; coordination across public and private sectors; and supply chain electrification and intersections with resilient infrastructure.
Key Questions for Consideration:
- How might we design and develop freight infrastructure to maximize efficiency and use of emerging technologies?
- What existing innovations and technologies could be introduced and scaled up at ports to increase the processing of goods and dramatically lower the transaction costs of US freight?
- How can we design systems that optimize for both efficiency and resilience?
- How can we reduce the negative externalities associated with our logistics systems, including congestion, air pollution, noise, GHG emissions, and infrastructure degradation?
To date, Japan’s peaceful nuclear energy use has taken the form of a nuclear fuel recycling policy that reprocesses spent fuel and effectively utilizes the plutonium retrieved in light water reactors (LWRs) and fast reactors (FRs). With the aim to complete recycling domestically, Japan has introduced key technology from abroad and has further developed its own technology and industry. However, Japan presently seems to have issues regarding its recycling policy and plutonium management.
Because of recent increasing risks of terrorism and nuclear proliferation in the world, the international community seeks much more secure use of nuclear energy. All of the countries that store plutonium (which can be used for making nuclear weapons) must make the best efforts possible to decrease it. Taking this into account, concerns about Japan’s problem of plutonium management have been growing in the international community and Japan’s accountability for its recycling policy is essential.
In this paper, Yusei Nagata, an FAS Research Fellow from MEXT, Japan, analyzes U.S. experts’ opinions and concerns about Japan’s problem and considers what Japan can (and should) do to solve it.
Read the full report here.
Although the United States still has the largest number of nuclear power plants in the world, it does not dominate global nuclear power. While the United States was the leading nuclear power supplying nation more than thirty years ago—at least for states outside of the Soviet sphere of influence—the reality today is clearly that the U.S. nuclear industry is only one of several major suppliers. The United States can no longer build a large nuclear power plant on its own. Foreign nuclear companies own major U.S. nuclear power companies.
In addition, the United States no longer supplies the majority of the world’s enriched uranium for nuclear fuel; instead, the United States Enrichment Corporation has shut down its enrichment plants based on gaseous diffusion and has been struggling to commercialize the American Centrifuge Project partly due to reduced global demand for enriched uranium and also due to competition from established enrichment companies.
Nonetheless, the United States continues to have great influence on the nuclear market because many of the major supplying nations have built their nuclear power programs on the basis of U.S. technology. In a new issue brief, FAS President Dr. Charles Ferguson takes a look at options for the United States to gain back leadership via a cooperative approach. The brief analyzes what nations could be effective partners for the United States in furthering nonproliferation while providing for the continued use of peaceful nuclear energy. The nuclear industry is increasingly globalized and the United States needs to partner with allies and other nations to advance nonproliferation objectives.
Global biosecurity engagement programs are designed to prevent the harmful use of biological agents and pathogens. It is difficult to measure the effectiveness of these programs in improving biosecurity given that there have been relatively few attempts to misuse the life sciences. Metrics that focus on outputs (what was done) as opposed to outcomes (the impact of what was done) have not been helpful in determining how these efforts might be improved in the future. As a result, the goals of the programs have traditionally been more quantitative in nature – for example, increasing the number of agents secured and number of scientists engaged. Broadening the scope of biosecurity engagement metrics can help align program goals with a more qualitative approach that prioritizes the international partners’ global health security.
To understand how biosecurity engagement is conducted and evaluated, Michelle Rozo, Ph.D. candidate at Johns Hopkins University, interviewed more than 35 individuals in the United States and abroad (including government officials and their non-governmental partners) regarding current and future programs that can be used to create a cohesive, global health system approach to biosecurity. The results from the interviews are complied in an issue brief which also provides a strategy for policymakers to focus more on qualitative public health outcomes instead of quantitative security outputs. With this strategy, programs will cost less and be more effective in reducing global threats.
The 2011 accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was preventable. The Great East Japan earthquake and the tsunami that followed it were unprecedented events in recent history, but they were not altogether unforeseeable. Stronger regulation across the nuclear power industry could have prevented many of the worst outcomes at Fukushima Daiichi and will be needed to prevent future accidents.
In an FAS issue brief, Dr. Charles Ferguson and Mr. Mark Jansson review some of the major problems leading up to the accident and provides an overview of proposed regulatory reforms, including an overhaul of the nuclear regulatory bureaucracy and specific safety requirements which are being considered for implementation in all nuclear power plants.
A country with few natural resources, first Japan began to develop nuclear power technologies in 1954. Nuclear energy assisted with Japanese economic development and reconstruction post World War II. However, with the fear of lethal ash and radioactive fallout and the lingering effects from the 2011 accident at Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, there are many concerns related to Japanese nonproliferation, security and nuclear policy.
In a FAS issue brief, Ms. Kazuko Goto, Research Fellow of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology of the Government of Japan, writes of Japan’s advancement of nuclear technologies which simultaneously benefits international nonproliferation policies.
The nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran have been, for many years, two of the most pressing and intractable security challenges facing the United States and the international community. While frequently lumped together as “rogue states,” the two countries have vastly different social, economic, and political systems, and the history and status of their nuclear and long-range missile programs differ in several critical aspects.
The international responses to Iranian and North Korean proliferation bear many similarities, particularly in the use of economic sanctions as a central tool of policy. Daniel Wertz, Program Officer at the National Committee on North Korea, and Dr. Ali Vaez, former Director of the Iran Project at the Federation of American Scientists, offer a comparative analysis of U.S. policy toward Iran and North Korea in a FAS issue.
Charles P. Blair, Senior Fellow on State and Non-State Threats, interviewed Federation of American Scientists’ Senior Fellow for Nuclear Policy Dr. Robert Standish Norris. The report takes a deeper look at the nuclear policies of the Obama administration—polices that Dr. Norris terms “radical” with regard to their vision of a nuclear weapon free world.