Firefighting teams have to make immediate decisions informed by years of training and experience. The question is, will live video streaming from the incident enhance effectiveness or impede rapid decisions on the ground? Our experience working with a wide variety of front-line teams, from soldiers to first responders, tells us that adding a carefully considered video streaming solution to their toolkit can provide a tremendous benefit in informing supporting teams and commanders.
There are multiple opportunities for live video. At Digital Barriers we take a holistic view focusing on all possible providers and consumers of video, as well as the situational awareness that can be derived from them. Providers of video range from fire-service vehicles, temporary video infrastructure placed by firefighting teams, body-worn cameras on firefighters’ uniforms, existing local government or law enforcement cameras, and social media video streams. All are useful but require a cohesive solution in order to gather and disseminate video effectively and avoid information overload. Furthermore, there are significant technical challenges to overcome that should not be trivialised.
The firefighting vehicle fleet attends all manner of incidents and often has a standby role near major events ready to respond as required. Video from the vehicle provides an excellent asset for the command team to use when assessing the environment around the vehicle and any surrounding issues such as over-crowding. This aids general readiness to respond. If an incident does occur, having cameras on the vehicle which are easy to access by the command team allows them to make additional operational decisions regarding the level of additional support needed and what further emergency services are required – such as more firefighting vehicles, police for crowd control, or ambulances for casualties. Multiple cameras may be placed on the vehicle including one or more “PTZ” cameras; these “pan-tilt-zoom” cameras allow a remote team to zero in on areas of interest to see more detail.
If an incident is underway the firefighting team can rapidly deploy “drop cameras” on tripods as they move to assess the incident area, providing a remote view of blind-spots. Other specialist drop cameras include those carried by drones which may play an increasing role in future incident management. All of these video assets can be viewed locally from the lead engine and from the command team. This allows one central team member to monitor multiple danger areas and assess increased risk of issues such as building collapse.
Body-worn cameras on firefighters’ uniforms give local and remote command teams the ability to view specific activities. They can also determine which additional actions need to be taken and can help teams determine if dangers start to exceed acceptable risk. They also allow firefighters to stream live video to subject matter experts, even if they are very remote, for expert advice on how to deal with an issue. Digital Barriers’ streaming technology has a unique capability that allows incredible detail to be seen over very low bandwidths, even from a remote viewer’s smart-phone. Of course this requires a very comprehensive approach to security, and this general need is further explored below.
In rapidly managing a response to an incident it is often useful to take over local street cameras: general surveillance CCTV that may be controlled by local government or law enforcement. However, the ability to see these cameras is often limited to a centralised incident command, even when it is really needed in the field. There are specialist approaches that allow that video to be harvested and sent real-time to the teams on the ground to allow them to see areas that may be hard to approach on foot. The same is true for video streaming from social media; at any large scale incident, the amount of video generated by the public is over-whelming. But it is possible to provide this sort of video to a local command centre quickly and reliably to further assist in incident management.
Steaming video from the field is hard. There are a number of significant constraints, in part generated by the demanding requirements of firefighting teams. The video must be streamed in real-time and not delayed; it must be secure, affordable and reliable – very different from streaming video for a FaceTime chat on an iPhone! It is possible, however, to meet these constraints using a mix of wireless technologies.
The police force was an early adopter of video on vehicles and body-worn cameras, but their use is mostly for evidence collection and to manage liability – i.e. for post -incident analysis and evidence capture. In part, this is because police forces adopted these solutions before it was technologically feasible to reliably stream video in a cost effective manner. Digital Barriers believe that live video is much more useful than just “black box recording” for the emergency services community. So, we have focused our developmental efforts on real-time streaming. The fire-service has a significant need for the additional insight that remote video streaming can provide. It allows ground-teams to concentrate on a hazard, while the centralized incident management team are able to provide a different level of support with the enriched situational awareness available. That said video harvested from an incident also has significant benefits for post incident analysis, to pass to both criminal investigation and training teams.
Streaming over cellular networks is the preferred approach as the infrastructure already exists and is relatively cost effective. However, video is very bandwidth hungry and uses a lot of data. Additionally, during an incident, there may be many members of the public each consuming an element of the local bandwidth by streaming video from mobile phones to social media and contacts. This causes contention for bandwidth and can create delays in the video causing reliability issues. There are many approaches to egress video over cellular. Digital Barriers’ approach is to use our specialist EdgeVis codec (encoding and decoding algorithms) which provides secure and reliable video over ultra-low bandwidths and can therefore cope when networks become constrained. Other techniques we have adopted include 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. Dedicated first responder networks are being revamped across Europe to include higher bandwidth capabilities. Whatever method is adopted, we strongly recommend that the local video systems are kept loosely coupled from communications technology. This will allow either side to upgrade without incurring the cost of a wholescale replacement.
The initial deployment of video streaming can appear to be a big leap for a fire service, but actually there are quite simple ways to engage with these capabilities to fully explore their benefits. Plenty of valuable lessons have been learned by the law enforcement field, especially by police tactical operations teams. Equipping a fire engine with fixed cameras and a set of drop cameras is a quick exercise, and the infrastructure required to support the system at the command centre can be standalone initially and later integrated into command and control systems. The most important area to address is often security, so the infrastructure must be securely encrypted and access to the system controlled and logged. Use of body-worn cameras requires the most development to ensure that there is no interference with the firefighter’s movements. They also need to be tested to be certain that they can withstand the environments likely to be encountered.
There are a number of key concepts that govern the requirements of a video system.
- Latency: How much of a delay there is between the occurrence of an event and it being viewable remotely. In many systems this can be three to ten seconds. This is unacceptable if the centralised incident management team are to provide effective support. Latency needs to be less than one second to be effective, otherwise known as “real-time”.
- Quality: Video quality is generally measured by resolution and frames per second (fps). The higher each measurement is the more data is used. This increases costs, as well as streaming and storage challenges. Typically we recommend that video is stored at full high definition (1920×1080 pixels – the same as a typical HD television set) and at 12-15 fps. Video streaming is typically lower quality, though our solutions allow the full high resolution detail to be viewed.
- Cameras: The choice of cameras is vast, with normal daylight and low-light cameras, fixed cameras and pan-tilt zoom cameras being the main choices. Thermal cameras are familiar equipment for many firefighters and can also be equipped. One camera type may not suit all applications teams, so they should strongly consider deploying multiple camera types.
For more information, go to www.digitalbarriers.com