In Europe, 2 million to 2.5 million fires are reported per year, resulting in up to 25,000 deaths. These can incorporate anything from a blaze in an urban high-rise building to a remote wildfire, each of which requires access to specialist equipment and expertise. There’s no doubt that equipment and alerting technologies have come on significantly in recent times, yet it still remains the case that firefighters are heavily reliant on the accuracy of the second-hand information provided by those reporting the incident, right up until the point that they arrive on scene. It is still the exception rather than the norm that they will have a live visual view of what they will be facing, making it difficult to know in advance the resources and personnel they need to respond properly.
This article will go into detail on the current situational awareness technology landscape that exists for firefighters, before discussing the benefits that a new generation of technology can solve. In particular it will outline how live video streaming and strategically placed cameras can improve resource allocation, at-scene decision-making and real-time access to remote expertise.
The current firefighting landscape
Focusing in on the UK as a case study, fire response times have increased gradually over the past 20 years. In a report from the UK Government, the increase in response times over the last two decades is cited as being due to “changing traffic levels, health and safety policies, ‘drive to arrive’ policies (where drivers modify driving depending on the risk in order to reduce the number of incidents that occur while mobile) and control staff typically asking more questions of the caller to better assess the risk and attendance needed”. The latter point is particularly interesting, as it relates to the very basic level of situational awareness that firefighters have to rely on when conducting their work. The stagnation in response times over the last few years could be caused by a number of factors, and arguably a legacy approach to situational awareness is part of this.
Firefighting practices in the UK are under a tremendous amount of scrutiny right now, prompted by the Grenfell Tower tragedy which took place on the 14th June, 2017. Reports from soon after the blaze cited that firefighters’ ability to tackle the blaze was hampered by the late arrival of specialist equipment (such as an aerial, or high ladder vehicle), radio problems due to poor reception within the building and low water pressure. There is no question that the firefighters who fought that day are heroes, having laid their own lives on the line to rescue 65 people from the burning building. Yet, they were let down by a lack of proper resources. Fire services deserve access to new technology where and when there is a compelling case that it will improve response times, situational awareness on site and the firefighting procedure itself.
Of course, technological advances which help firefighters subdue fires faster and give them the ability to stay in burning buildings for longer are critical. However, tools which give commanders advanced situational awareness can also vastly improve the way that fires are fought. This is because they enable firefighters and commanders to interpret a scene from a safe distance, allowing them to prepare for exactly what they’ll find inside the building. They also eliminate the need for incredibly dangerous ‘fast attack’ entries into buildings that put firefighters’ lives at risk and may mean that they aren’t able to fight a fire to their best ability. Finally, they enable the right specialist resources to be requested and deployed sooner and for those on the ground to consult remote sources of intelligence. For example, the recent wildfire on Saddleworth Moor covered an area of 7 square miles and took a full three weeks to extinguish. When fighting this blaze, it was undoubtedly beneficial to get input from colleagues from warmer climates who were more used to responding to such challenges.
Tools such as thermal imaging and gas detection are also very useful for helping commanders map out risk within burning buildings, providing real-time dynamic telemetry, and can be deployed on a fixed device such as a fire engine. They can be portable or can even be placed on a drone in order to gather intelligence from above a building. Real-time video streaming could be deployed in a similar way to provide a high level of situational awareness, and could even be incorporated with other technologies in order to provide an in-depth picture of exactly what’s going on at an incident.
Live-streaming video: The technicalities
Steaming video from the field is hard but the difference it makes is significant compared to the “black box recording” that is currently more commonplace. Recorded video is fine for evidential purposes and for allocating liability “after the fact”. However this is very different to being able to take action “in the moment” that can ultimately help save lives and minimise damage caused.
There are a number of significant constraints, in part generated by the demanding requirements of firefighting teams. The video must truly be streamed in real-time as even a small delay can result in an inaccurate reading of the scene. It must also be secure, affordable and reliable to deliver confidence that it can be trusted to deliver when it really counts.
Streaming over cellular networks is the preferred approach as the infrastructure already exists and is relatively cost effective. However, video can be very bandwidth hungry and consume huge amounts of data. Additionally, in the event of an emergency the first thing people do is reach for their phones which can cause network congestion and therefore severe video latency, disrupting the flow of content being streamed. There are many approaches to egress video over cellular. For example, by using a specialist codec (encoding and decoding algorithm) secure and reliable video can be streamed over ultra-low bandwidths even when networks become constrained. Other techniques involve creating a local wireless “bubble” at the scene. By using Wi-Fi or mesh radio systems to provide local high-bandwidth communications, control teams are able to view and command teams on the ground via cellular or even satellite communications.
The initial deployment of video streaming might appear to be a big leap for a fire service, but there are simple ways to engage with this capability to fully explore its benefits. Equipping a fire engine with fixed cameras and a set of drop cameras is a quick exercise. The infrastructure required to support the live-streaming at the command centre can be standalone initially and later integrated into existing command and control systems. The technology can then be deployed on drones to get a wider picture of an incident and even on bodyworn cameras (which could be enhanced further with GPS and audio capabilities) to be worn by firefighters and offer even greater situational awareness from within the building. Bodycams haven’t been developed to be sufficiently ruggedised for the fire environment yet, but the hardware is fast evolving and this capability will undoubtedly become invaluable in the future.
Firefighting is a perilous job, both in terms of risk to the public and to firefighters themselves. So, Commanders require as much situational awareness as possible in order to make the best decisions on site during an incident. Firefighting deserves a technological upgrade, with the potential for live-streaming and other new capabilities to improve response times and overall missions being immense. The fact that firefighters had to rely on video captured by the public during the Grenfell Tower Fire is unacceptable – cutting-edge situational awareness technology is out there and should be being used today.
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