Resilient Front Line Communications
The Fire and Rescue industry is facing significant challenges over the next few years having to balance improved services to the public against an estimated £10m reduction to budgets. In light of these imminent cuts, Chris Jones, CEO of PageOne outlines the importance of adopting technology that offers such organisations a far more efficient and effective mechanism to manage resources. Ultimately, by embracing innovative technology Fire and Rescue services can offset some of the pressures arising from cuts, whilst taking steps to improve response times and general communication.
Responding to emergency incidents is an integral part of the UK Fire and Rescue Service and its role within society is essential to improving the safety of local communities. However, drastic cuts to funding announced in the Spending Review suggest that firefighters are increasingly being asked to do more with less, whilst still providing a quality public service to its citizens.
An independent survey commissioned by PageOne consisting of over 500 professionals within the UK Fire Services, highlighted a number of key trends and areas of concern within the industry. Responses to non-fire issues, particularly natural disasters including flooding and environmental pollution were seen as surging threats which would be certain to expand the remits of their role. However, an astounding two thirds of individuals surveyed cited a reduction in manpower to be the biggest area of concern, and a further fifth expected to see station closures occur in a bid to achieve substantial savings. With the expectation of considerable cuts to manpower and government funding as a whole, over 86% of respondents believed investment in technology would be a priority over the coming months.
In response to these concerns, PageOne has been working closely with a number of Fire and Rescue services to provide functional technology that can help manage both assets and resources more efficiently. The fundamental premise being to provide, a more detailed understanding of where staff are and their availability. The power of such information can provide a wealth of benefits including improved response times by mobilising personnel closest to the desired location and with the appropriate skill set to deal with the challenges of the scene. Better co-ordination of information between the Command and Control centres, firefighters out in the field and key stakeholders has also proven to be a an important area in achieving an effective response.
Essex fire is one service that is truly benefitting from integrating technology with their command and control centre and who rely on this to get the right people to the right place at the right time. They depend on paging (and critical messaging services) to ensure that 280 key operational and support workers such as fire officers, administrators and specialist teams are easily contactable from the command and control room. Essex has integrated its paging solution with its own control system to facilitate the process of sending out various specialist groups to incidents across the country. This has led to a much more joined-up emergency response and enables Essex fire fighters to immediately dispatch volunteers, for example from The British Red Cross fire victims support service, who can help with issues such as arranging alternative accommodation for those affected by a disaster.
Ultimately, the effectiveness of any emergency response can be broken down into three factors; the ability to receive, respond and act on timely information. In fact, 70% of respondents surveyed, stated that increased efficiency and faster response times were some of the key benefits sought when adopting new technology. Traditionally paging technology has been a key enabler for communications within the Fire Service, providing an unrivalled mechanism to receive information. The inherent benefits of paging, its successful use in critical environments, can now be combined with 2-way communication that if used correctly will significantly improve fire response times. Two-way paging provides reliable 2-way communication with the usual speed, assurance and reach of paging, only now with the additional capability to acknowledge and respond to a paging broadcast, thus very effectively closing the communications loop. The technology can also support enhanced features including an emergency SOS button and GPS-based location tracking, so the incident manager can target messaging based on locality as well as availability. In comparison with SMS, 2-way paging delivers more information, but the real benefits to this is that the information can be logged at the command and control centre, providing a full audit trail of messaging events for review at a later date.
Firefighters out in the field can use 2-way paging to update the control room of their operational status. The individual selects status updates such as – ‘mobile’, at ‘scene’, ‘clear of scene’, ‘available for deployment’, for example – and sends this information back to the control room. Simple changes to technology such as this will have significant impact on resource management and enable better targeting of information to operational personnel.
The introduction of the reply path for paging has also been extended in the Responder to group calling or broadcast messaging, so in the immediate aftermath of unforeseen events such as fires, floods and terrorism, there may be a large number of groups that need to be contacted instantly and kept informed using the one-to-many broadcast ability of paging. This one to many group call is now further enhanced by allowing all those individuals to auto-confirm receipt of the group message, read, reply and report location which is then displayed on a map identifying all the responders within the group. Linking 2-way replies and location information with group broadcast that could include thousands of members, makes this is very powerful incident management tool.
Mobilising fire officers to respond to an incident quickly and effectively may seem like a simple procedure. However many fire services have first responders with different skill sets and expertise, requiring careful management of teams that may be spread over a geographical area.
A prime example is retained firefighters. Integral to today’s fire and rescue service, retained firefighters provide a service that gives emergency cover to more than 90 per cent of the UK. The advent of 2-way paging can offer organisations that rely on retained firefighters vast cost savings, by simply establishing the availability of full-time staff before requesting assistance of retained staff to supplement resources.
Another example is the National Resilience Assurance team who work hand-in hand with the UK fire and rescue service to support large-scale incidents. They have a team of 24 people located within the regions and have specialists in various capabilities dealing with floods, chemical disaster or terrorist attacks. It is critical that when any disaster happens all officers are made aware of the situation immediately so that they can instantly react and offer support to the affected fire and rescue service.
Communications were previously carried out using mobile phones and Blackberry devices over existing mobile networks but it became clear that this was unreliable, and issues regarding timely responses became prevalent. In contrast to their mobile devices, 2-way paging offered a far more effective channel dedicated to mobilising staff in time-critical situations whilst also ensuring rapid response times. Knowing who could attend and who was not available from the widespread team provided huge savings, not only in terms of efficient deployment of resources, but also cost. Key for National Resilience is that the Responder has greatly improved communication, thus the assurance that messages have been received and understood.
The Government may have slashed funding, however it is clear that technology has a huge role to play in alleviating some of the looming pressures stemming from budgetary cuts. To circumvent this imminent threat, professionals within the Fire Service should perhaps look at how both new and existing technology can provide innovative ways to drive efficiency, while continuing to maintain a high level of service.