Freelance journalist

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Ron Alalouff is a journalist specialising in the fire and security markets, and a former editor of websites and magazines in the same fields.
June 24, 2021

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Crisis management

Using technology to improve situational awareness for fire and rescue services

The Grenfell Tower inquiry exposed how firefighters lacked essential information about the fire, holding back the progress of tackling it and the rescue of trapped residents. Ron Alalouff spoke to Steve McLinden who is involved in efforts to improve such situational awareness via technologies including drones, body-worn cameras and AI.

Firefighters-Charity-20The Grenfell Tower public inquiry laid bare the inadequacies of communication and information flows between firefighters, incident commanders, the London Fire Brigade control room and residents of the tower.

The inquiry found, for example, that control room operators were overwhelmed with the number of calls from residents; there were no systematic arrangements for the number and source of calls to be communicated to incident commanders; systems such as command support did not work properly; communication between the control room and the incident ground were improvised, uncertain and prone to error; and control room operators had no overall picture of the speed or pattern of the fire spread. As such, just like the firefighters working in the tower, many commanders and LFB control room staff were operating with at least partially obscured vision of what was really happening.

New digital technologies and AI

Since the Grenfell Tower fire, the emergence of new technologies and capabilities such as drones and body-worn cameras has enabled firefighters to better access risk-critical and situational information in near real time.

The use of technology generally – and artificial intelligence (AI) in particular – is growing among fire and rescue services according to Steve McLinden, who has had 33 years’ experience with Mid and West Wales Fire & Rescue Service. There he led the Digital Transformation 2020 programme, which developed instantly deployable tracking of firefighters at incidents and the introduction of drones into the service. He now works as an Account Executive for Barcelona-based Unblur, developers of the IRIS incident command software system, which unifies data sources onto a single interface to help decision-making and response.

Following his participation in an online conference organised by digital evidence management software provider FotoWare, I asked McLinden how he would sum up the current state of new technology being used by fire and rescue services. “It’s a mixed bag really. The introduction of drones has highlighted that devices are able to improve situational awareness, while telemetry systems linked to breathing apparatus can monitor firefighters’ status and activity.

“In addition, there are mobile data and mapping systems in fire appliance cabs – which provide valuable information on the whereabouts of water sources and risk information such as data on chemicals – and incident management systems in Incident Command Units. What has been lacking, however, is the means to have a unified and single stream of data that is mobile and which informs incident commanders of the bigger picture.”

This is where systems such as IRIS come in. All information is funnelled through a single channel and is time-stamped and fully auditable, giving sector commanders more autonomy and intelligence in their decision-making. In the case of a roof fire, for example, such a system provides information to the commander on crews that are inside the building, or those fighting the fire below the roof externally, so that any decision made would not endanger them. In essence, the software gives visualisation to the decision-maker and shares that decision with those who could be affected by it. In the case of a single appliance arriving at a serious incident, video and data can be shared with a tactical manager for remote support, or with crews of appliances who are following.

Firefighting-IRIS-21Technology for fire safety inspections

Digital technology is not, however, limited to firefighting incidents. “Body-worn cameras can be used for fire safety inspections to evidence the problems or contraventions discovered,” said McLinden. “By using systems such as IRIS, you can involve remotely-based specialists to resolve particular problems, with all inputs being auditable. And post-incident, video footage can be replayed to analyse key events and decisions, enabling managers to view events in the context of what firefighters actually saw and experienced.”

Again, this is an issue that has come up in the Grenfell Tower inquiry, highlighting how firefighters on the ground had a different perspective of how the fire was developing compared to incident commanders and control room operators. The technology could also have been used to provide clarity to incident commanders, for example, by dropping pins to visually represent where casualties and people needing rescue were situated.

Training and assessment of competency is another area where such software comes into its own, explains McLinden. Today, there are generally fewer fire incidents that fire and rescue services are called to, especially in more rural regions. This could lead to lower levels of experience on the part of firefighters, but having access to video and other data available from firefighters’ perspectives could fill the knowledge gap.

Such technology is not limited to fire and rescue services. Police forces, security services and other first responders can benefit – it can be applied to any setting where individuals need to be aware of a situation and the whereabouts of their colleagues. And police, security officers and other frontline staff are already making use of live streaming body-worn cameras for their own safety and protection.


READ: The rise of body-worn cameras in security, retail and healthcare 


Drone technology

Drone-TallBuildings-20Another technology capable of assisting fire and rescue services and other emergency services is that of drones. Currently, drones are used for aerial reconnaissance but incident commanders can become distracted by watching live video unfold, explains McLinden, to the detriment of absorbing and deciding on other information. Software can ensure that incident commanders only receive still images, so the process takes up far less of their time and attention.

The system has been used by Mid and West Wales Fire & Rescue at a large industrial fire, where images from the drone helped identify an open water source which was much closer than the available fire hydrants. “Drones also come into their own with thermal imaging cameras where the build-up of a fire – especially ones affecting a roof – can be plotted. In addition, drones have successfully been used to support police helicopters and air ambulances, particularly where low-level searches of terrain are required.”

McLinden says the future use of digital technology by fire and rescue services will be similar – but different. Key skills will still be required, as technology can fail so it needs to be used in conjunction with those skills and not instead of them. “We are where the public were with smartphones and apps around five or six years ago. The Grenfell Tower fire showed that communications, situational awareness and up-to-date plans all need improving on. A lot more AI is needed to sift data because of the sheer amount of that data coming in.”

 

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