FIRE Correspondent Andrew Chilvers reports on how technology is revolutionising the way fire and rescue services operate, from engaging with the community to fighting fires and delivering a more efficient and effective service
In a serious road traffic collision speed is a crucial element for first responders, giving casualties the best chance of survival.
For the Fire and Rescue Service to deliver the fastest and most effective response, information prior to arriving at the scene is critical. For Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service, which oversees some 12,000 square kilometres of Wales, the adoption of Microsoft Surface Go devices has helped the service view information on specific vehicles as they travel to an incident.
As a result, firefighters at the scene are told in real-time about the best methods to cut through vehicles to free trapped passengers and how to disable undeployed airbags to avoid injury. The live information of the incident is shared instantly with colleagues across the service.
Microsoft’s technology is used alongside the mobile data terminals found in all fire appliances. These allow firefighters to stay in contact with their control centre but cannot be removed from the vehicle.
Chris Davies, Chief Fire Officer at Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service, told FIRE: “By using Surface Go, our officers can now see all the safety features of a vehicle involved in an accident, wherever they are. This gives firefighters more information about the situation as they safely extricate casualties.
“The use of real-time data and Power BI has transformed what we do. Whether that’s information from an emergency or a live feed from a drone searching for someone injured on a mountain, information allows our staff to understand situations in more detail.”
This Microsoft Surface Go example demonstrates the impact that technology has on a FRS’s critical responses, while it can also help with other activities such as using video streaming network Teams to hold online training sessions for firefighters across Wales.
With 1,400 staff employed in 58 fire stations across Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, Neath Port Talbot, Pembrokeshire, Powys and Swansea, arranging for everyone to be in the same place for training can be difficult. There are few motorways in Wales often resulting in firefighters spending up to six hours travelling to a training session that lasts a couple of hours.
Throw in the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and various lockdowns that have made it impossible to have physical training sessions, CFO Davies has found Teams to be a far more efficient – and safer – solution.
“I’ve been encouraging more staff to conduct remote meetings, because we don’t need to ask all the officers to travel to headquarters, for example,” Davies said. “We can run meetings on Teams and it’s far more effective. People are much more engaged.
“It’s simple uses of technology like that which are really changing how our service operates to meet the needs of today’s world.”
Davies hopes to use more technology in the training of staff in the future. He wants to use Microsoft HoloLens to create life-sized holograms of some of the buildings in mid and west Wales, which firefighters can look at and interact with during training at their station or on the way to an emergency. This will allow them to understand potential risks, identify safe routes through those buildings, and learn the location of hydrants and sprinklers.
Currently, firefighters look at single line drawings of buildings on a computer screen.
HoloLens could also be used to train officers in how to respond to emergencies at Wales’ oil refineries. “We have a number of oil refineries in the area, and historically we’ve always trained on those sites,” Davies says. “What HoloLens will enable us to do is put incident commanders into those scenarios, in an almost live experience but in a safe environment.
“I firmly believe this is going to change the way that we train and maintain the competencies of our firefighters.”
Technology is also changing the way firefighters tackle fires. For instance, FRS’s are increasingly using drones and thermal imaging during incidents. While drones were first used by the West Midlands Fire and Rescue Service as far back as 2007, they are now becoming commonplace and numerous services have one embedded in their operational infrastructure.
Drones can stream back real-time pictures, which can be important for assessing evolving or hard to reach situations, or those where it is feared there is a toxic element to a fire or the risk of explosive material inside a building. The information can help tactical and strategic leads assess the risks in a situation and formulate the most effective response, as well as helping to keep firefighters safe.
As drones are aerial, it means they can move around difficult terrain and record issues that are often difficult for firefighters to see – such as high-rise fires and motorway incidents where the carriageway is blocked.
Thermal imaging cameras are also increasingly being attached to drones to help identify people within buildings, in remote areas or in night-time conditions.
For instance, thermal imaging cameras can help to locate missing people in search and rescue operations in dense wooded areas. In addition, they can detect if anybody is suffering from hypothermia, which helps the firefighters to gauge the urgency of the operation and which equipment they will need to take with them.
When responding to fires, thermal imaging cameras can identify hot spots in a blaze, or explosive items such as gas canisters. Imaging can also show the fire’s structure, helping to provide the most effective response while ensuring the firefighters’ safety.
Moreover, training courses for drone operations are becoming more common and are relatively inexpensive – and the cost of the drones themselves is also coming down.
When responding to fires, radio communication is vital, and digital technology is improving this function. Legacy analogue systems have been relied on for many years by services, but digital technology offers a number of benefits, including better coverage, and eliminating issues such as static and background noise more effectively. Digital systems can also offer much better battery life between charges compared to the analogue equivalents.
As an example, East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service’s (ESFRS) operations team – working with Tait Communications in collaboration with Telent – has developed a new safety critical fireground communications solution that increases range, improves quality and provides enhanced safety features.
ESFRS’ solution provides better compatibility with firefighters’ breathing apparatus for improved voice and audio performance in digital mode. In addition, new audio accessories with large buttons are incorporated for easier use when wearing protective gloves and an enhanced digital communications range allows multiple radios to be used together over long and short distances. When the ‘Push To Talk’ button is pressed on the digital radio, it sounds an alert tone indicating to the firefighter to start talking, increasing usability and user confidence, especially for breathing apparatus wearers in zero visibility, high stress conditions.
Following successful simulated incident trials, Telent supplied 350 Tait handheld digital radios to ESFRS, a mix of ATEX units for use by firefighters and non-ATEX units for use by incident commanders, with both units sharing a common battery.
“Crucially, this solution [enhances] communications between firefighters on the ground, providing them with better protection and ensuring they can carry out their vital work safely,” said Richard Fowler, Assistant Director, Operational Support and Resilience at ESFRS. “As the radio was designed specifically to meet the requirements of our fire service, it targets the key areas that needed to be addressed to improve our operational capabilities.”
The solution runs on pre-defined operational channels and uses a 4-Watt ATEX radio transmitter, a four-fold increase over typical analogue devices, providing increased operational range. It was developed to work with Dräger breathing apparatus, retaining the benefits of the Lung Demand Valve noise suppression, while optimising the clarity and volume of speech on the digital channels.
With the radios able to operate in close proximity, each firefighter can be issued with a radio, eliminating the need for sharing radios at an incident, providing a major safety benefit. To further enhance the coverage range, Telent has provided ESFRS with portable repeaters that can be deployed – for example, in a high-rise building – enabling coverage throughout the incident area on demand.
The Eyes Have It
Digital technology is also changing initial responses. For instance, Capita recently announced that Surrey Fire and Rescue Service and West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service have become the latest to take on its 999eye live video-streaming and location-finding service.
Both services are mobilised from a single control room. 999eye enables callers to live stream videos directly to control room operators. This means that when a 999 call is received, the caller is asked if they would like to provide a live video stream of the scene using their smartphone.
Using 999eye, the control room operator sends a text message with a secure, one-time-use link that opens a live stream direct from the smartphone to the control room. At the same time, the software will send the caller’s GPS coordinates enabling control room operators to pinpoint their exact location. No app is required and no other data is taken from or stored on the caller’s phone. The caller also receives a receipt after the call for their records.
Having “eyes” on the scene helps operators to assess the severity of the incident and support their decision-making processes to ensure the most appropriate response is mobilised. They can also advise on public safety and guide people away from potential danger. Multiple users can view the 999eye live streams, if required, including control room supervisors, senior officers and the responding crew attending the scene to give them a clear and up-to-date picture of the incident so they know what will be required of them before they arrive.
In this deal, 999eye is supporting 50 fire stations covering almost 1,400 square miles. 999eye is currently used by 35 emergency services across the UK, US and Canada, and six non-emergency services in the UK.
Dan Quin, Deputy Chief Fire Officer, Surrey Fire and Rescue Service, said: “Our operators are under pressure to collect detailed information as quickly as possible from the second a call comes in. Having access to a live video stream of events as they unravel will help evaluate risk, support decision-making and deliver better services to our communities.”
In a similar vein, apps such as What3Words, which help to pinpoint a person’s exact location wherever they are in the world, have been helping to speed up FRS’s responses to emergencies. The app has divided the world up into 57 trillion squares, each measuring 3m by 3m (10ft by 10ft) and each having a unique, randomly assigned three-word address.
London Fire Brigade first used it in 2019 when a caller phoned in to alert the Brigade to a bin fire but did not know which road he was on. Using What3Words, London Fire Brigade was able to find his location and quickly dispatch a crew to deal with the fire.
Since then, the app has become more established and widely known – thanks in part to a TV advertising campaign – and has been used by other services around the country.
Keeping in Touch
Elsewhere, online technology is also helping FRS’s to stay in touch with their communities, which is especially important during the pandemic where face-to-face contact is all but impossible. Cleveland Fire Brigade, for example, started running virtual drop-in fire safety sessions for businesses and other organisations from last April.
People could log-on and speak directly to a fire safety expert and get advice and support to comply with their legal obligations. They could also give video tours of their premises to enable the expert to pinpoint any danger areas.
Steve Johnson, Area Manager, Prevention, said: “Our number one priority is keeping our communities safe.
“In these difficult times we are committed to supporting local businesses and other organisations to keep them in line with fire safety regulations.
“These virtual drop-in sessions allow local businesses and their designated ‘Responsible Persons’ to speak with our fire engineering team and use digital technology to show us any issues they may have within premises.”
Nevertheless, despite huge strides in community engagement there are ongoing issues that need to be addressed. One of the most common problems is the lack of superfast broadband available across the country, particularly in more rural areas. This can hinder the adoption of some of these technologies because of the lack of broadband speed. There are also GDPR issues that have to be considered.
But overall the advantages outweigh the downsides – and some of these problems will be rectified in the coming years by the government – and FRS’s should look to invest in technology to ensure their response to emergencies is as effective as possible.