Firefighters need fast, reliable communications with clear audio, better safety systems and situational awareness to help them plan their response and be ready for the unexpected. This article examines current capabilities and looks forward to the collaborative technologies which will let commanders remotely monitor the status of firefighters, improving awareness and safety.
Improving incident command decision-making and firefighter safety
Against the chaotic backdrop of a raging fire and the increasing complexity of multi-agency response, Incident Commanders can rapidly be inundated with information. Distractions and critical tasks impact their decision-making. When keeping track of firefighters, Incident Commanders need to know who is fighting the fire, where, what they are doing, for how long and how they are.
This is the main reason why ‘accountability’ systems have become one of the most important safety measures on the fireground today and is a key driver for the development of the connected firefighter. Historically, incident command have created manual systems to keep track of personnel – from ID tags placed in a bucket, to white boarding to tell if a firefighter was in or outside the fire.
Two-way radios have been a firefighter’s mission-critical lifeline and as a result, have drastically transformed the way firefighters do their job. Better radio and equipment coupled with wireless technology breakthroughs mean safer and smarter communications leading to better accountability. Radios and assured access to voice communications mean information can be relayed more quickly, enabling firefighters to report their status directly to incident command via push-to-talk (PTT) capabilities.
Today’s accountability solutions integrate better tools, Personnel Accountability Reports (PAR), timers that indicate when a fire crew arrives on scene and evacuation notifications. The aim is for Incident Commanders ‘to see everything’ on the fireground and pinpoint each firefighter on-scene. Through the use of the latest solutions Incident Commanders could manage and transmit real-time information (identification, emergency alerts, radio battery life, voice responses and reports) for all personnel and resources to and from a single user interface.
Working against the clock
Consider the time it takes to account for all personnel on-scene at the fireground. 30 minutes is a not unfair estimate. In a heightened emergency environment this is far too long, when the Incident Commander needs to be focussing on coordinating the response and the safe evacuation of people from a building.
Simple commands such as ‘call out’ alerts and ‘mayday’ assistance requests would be automated to significantly reduce cycle time on Personnel Accountability Report (PAR) checks. So when a call out alert is given, every firefighter will hear a tone request and press the push-to-talk (PTT) button on their radio to acknowledge. The Incident Commander receives a confirmation of who has acknowledged the roll call and who has not. If a firefighter does not acknowledge the Commander will immediately see who did not respond and can take necessary steps. These types of capabilities, provisioned on simple, easy-to-use tools help incident commanders improve their effectiveness.
This simple example demonstrates the value to first responders of always-on voice and data communications over dedicated networks. Streamlining accountability through new applications is the first important step towards the future connected firefighter.
Connecting the firefighter
The connected firefighter represents a collaboration of varied, connected and ultimately integrated technologies which communicate directly with the firefighter and the Incident Commander. As a result, the connected firefighter demands a robust, reliable and secure communications network be in place. One that supports standards-based mission critical integrated voice and data communications for emergency response and coordinated communications during and after an incident. Increasingly the network, or a combination of networks, must be optimised to deliver integrated voice and data. Secure, guaranteed, send and receive voice and data communications needs to be deliverable across a wide area.
At the hub of the connected firefighter’s collaborative technology is a ruggedised radio designed for first responders working in extreme environments. The demands on this device are clear; it needs to be simple to operate. The radio needs to be ergonomically designed for the working firefighter with enlarged, glove-friendly controls which can be easily located and operated without necessarily being able to see the device.
A clear, easy to access interface for both voice and data is paramount. Despite the connected firefighter being increasingly data centric, the significance of voice must not be ignored. It remains the primary interface for the firefighter at scene, so the radio must deliver clear audio ensuring every word and audio alert is heard. To this end, noise suppression technology can effectively reduce most extraneous noise – pumps, fire roar and sirens – ensuring firefighters can hear and be heard in the loudest environments.
For the connected firefighter enhanced safety functionality is built in, with Automatic Accountability Check-ins (AAC) and man-down integration, automatically sending out a distress signal if firefighter is prone and motionless. This is technology readily available today, but as we look forward, the radio’s collaboration with a range of networked devices, either worn by the firefighter or operating independently, will begin to deliver increasingly accurate, mission critical information to the firefighter and the Incident Commander.
Enhanced situational awareness
The firefighter’s helmet and self contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) mask are core platforms for advancing situational awareness for the connected firefighter.
We are already seeing first concepts for SCBA mask integration, with heads up display (HUD) capability giving firefighters real time status updates. This is enabled through the provision of LED alerts – such as monitoring existing levels within an airtank. Today, Motorola Solutions is working on advanced monitoring with a number of air tank providers, relaying air levels via radio link to incident command. The company can also relay and display information including current channel, talk groups and battery levels from its integrated radios to the HUD.
Body worn video is a technology actively being trialled by first responders. Whether mounted on the user’s chest (more stable), or helmet (improved point of view (POV)), the advantages of live streaming video from the fireground for enhanced situational awareness is unequivocal. With the Incident Commander gaining access to real-time views of a hazardous situation from multiple feeds decision making is greatly enhanced. In addition, the deployment of personal cameras capable of providing infrared or thermal imaging means video capture in dense smoke becomes possible. The advantage of directly communicating these images to incident command will dramatically enhance situational awareness.
The HUD on the SCBA mask will also receive enhanced environmental and biometric monitoring which will form a crucial part of the individual firefighter’s safety system. Environmental sensors which can quickly identify threats at an incident scene are a near term development. They will help to position firefighters and accelerate the rescue of public from areas which pose immediate hazard to health. These arrays of sensors will both register and immediately communicate the presence of toxins, gasses, environmental temperature and even radiation. In addition to enhanced situational awareness this information will allow Commanders to generate real time environmental incident mapping.
If environmental monitors are then used in conjunction with biometric health monitoring Commanders have the option of proactively removing firefighters from the incident before a health crisis arises. A boom in the desire for connected health monitoring amongst consumers has helped deliver rapid advances in compact, wearable, high quality physiological monitoring modules. These devices enable the capture and transmission of comprehensive data on the wearer via connected data networks. A prime example would be the Zephyr Bio-Monitoring Sensor, a compact remote monitoring solution. Able to communicate via radio, it provides live monitoring of heart rate and blood pressure, as well as location based information such as speed. All of this data can then potentially be interpreted and fed to the HUD within the firefighter’s breathing apparatus as visual alerts, providing easy to digest critical environmental and health information to enhance reaction time. Working in combination with the man-down alerts on the radio, and live video from a helmet camera, the incident commander gains an increasingly clear picture of an individual firefighter and is therefore better able to address accountability in the fireground.
Understanding the condition of a firefighter is valueless if a Commander cannot accurately locate, in real time, their position. To meet this need Motorola Solutions has integrated with Astro P25 portable radios in the USA the TRX NEON Indoor Location System. Using an advanced sensor package which fuses gyroscope, accelerometer, pressure, compass, GPS, Wi-Fi, ranging sensor information, inferred map and building data, TRX deploys time and mapping algorithms to deliver precise, real-time locations of firefighters when in a building, even if reliable GPS location is denied.
Tracking multiple responders on overlaid building blueprints, the system not only supplies ‘eyes’ on the inside, it importantly provides a three dimensional element to location so that incident command can see which floor firefighters are occupying. This is especially important in a man down situation, where it is critical to understand if the party is lying on an upper floor or trapped close to the ceiling of the floor below.
The system will also map all steps taken, making it easier for a rescue party to follow and recover a comrade. By combining rapidly deployable multi-sensor anchor nodes and floor plan information with live video feed from helmet cameras Incident Commanders gain additional valuable and actionable intelligence.
Looking beyond wearable technology, enhanced situational awareness through real-time video streaming can also be gained by embedding video cameras into fire appliances, transmitting imagery over TETRA Enhanced for Data (TEDS) for broad situational awareness. This can also be taken a step further: By unifying TEDS and LTE technologies, firefighters are provided with joined mission-critical voice features and multimedia services to enable multimedia talk groups or collaboration tools as well as unified operations and management. LTE is the world’s most advanced wireless broadband technology with a rich ecosystem of technology suppliers and the promise of scale economies. These next generation mission-critical communication platforms help operators and users to augment existing voice and data services with cutting edge technologies and applications that transform response to incidents, improving efficiency and enhancing safety.
For true oversight of the fireground, many are contemplating the application of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, which could offer a multi-lens infrared, thermal or regular view of hazards not visible from the ground, such as a roof in danger of collapse. Though successfully deployed for wildfire monitoring in Western Australia and Washington state in the USA, drone technology requires considerable development before it can be safely deployed in urban airspaces. Battery life versus weight (which is defined by the complexity of the flight package of cameras and radio link) means most small drones still have a limited operational lifespan which impacts on their usability. They are also fragile which can impede low level deployment over a fireground. One option would be to deploy a mid-to-high level tethered aerostat – a balloon with a camera package deployed from a 4×4 vehicle to provide an ‘eye in the sky’ live feed which could be shared to incident command.
The intelligent firefighter
While the opportunities to enhance a connected firefighter’s situational awareness and safety are considerable, it is worthwhile observing the potential barrage of information that could also be delivered to a firefighter.
Although rich data can be an attractive addition to a firefighter’s toolset, the most valuable element for the connected firefighter will still be audio. In an emergency, you do not want to be reading, you want to be calling instruction and receiving advice. Tonal alerts keyed to environmental, equipment and biometric sensors will become common. Hands free communications, with voice activated control of the radio enabling switching of channels, activation of man down, call up location, or switching to an alternate camera POV will be the most powerful interface for the connected firefighter.
The Incident Command’s role must be the filter – ingesting a mass of voice, text, telematics and video, and then deploying real-time intelligence techniques currently being developed for police forces to deliver actionable intelligence. For the connected firefighter much of the accountability will be automatically initiated, and monitoring will be managed remotely.
The ultimate aim of the connected firefighter is to deliver critical intelligence applicable to their situation, enabling them to focus on the task rather than the technology. In this manner their capability is enhanced, while complexity is reduced, ensuring all firefighters can engage a fire more safely and with greater confidence.
For more information, go to www.motorolasolutions.com