Fire and rescue authorities take health and safety legislation very seriously. They have to. In most businesses, the hazards faced by employees are created by the business itself. Fire and rescue is different. The employees – the firefighters – are asked to go into dangerous situations to save lives and properties, knowing they will face hazards which are generated by external events.
Unsurprisingly, health and safety legislation places an obligation for fire and rescue authorities to identify and assess these external hazards, and to ensure that this information is shared with firefighters. The challenge is how best to share this information and enhance personal safety while keeping speed of response and operational efficiency in mind.
An effective solution is to combine the immediacy of wireless technology with the location intelligence of geographic information systems (GIS). Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service (LFRS) has discovered that such a solution coupled with a command and control system can provide the right information, to the right people, at the right time.
The authority has equipped 88 of its appliances with Motorola MW810 ruggedised mobile computers running the MODAS mobile data application from 3tc Software. The system provides fire crews with the necessary information about the incident location and its immediate surroundings while the crew is en route to the incident. They are presented with base mapping, risk data, hydrant locations, and Hazchem data. Taking advantage of the computer’s built-in and dead reckoning GPS, the system also provides information on a vehicle’s current position in relation to the incident location.
System developers at 3tc Software embedded mapping and location intelligence into MODAS, using developer tools supplied as part of Cadcorp’s Spatial Information System®. Cadcorp is a leading supplier of GIS software to UK fire and rescue services. Central to the design brief issued to the 3tc Software development team was the stipulation that information had to be presented to fire crews quickly, easily and with the minimum of prompting. The result is illustrated in the box below. The screen layout of MODAS is uncluttered and simple to navigate. It has to be. ‘Speeding to an incident in a fire appliance is not the time or place to learn how to navigate a complex computer menu,’ as a LFRS firefighter pointed out.
In fact, much of the information MODAS manages is presented to the fire crew in a context-sensitive way, removing the need for anything other than acknowledging the commands initiated by MODAS, and absorbing the information presented on the computer screen. MODAS uses knowledge of a vehicle’s current position in relation to the incident to determine the appropriate scale of map to display at any moment. Scales can be switched automatically from 1:50,000 through 1:25,000 and eventually to the 1:1250 scale of Ordnance Survey’s flagship OS MasterMap® digital product.
In a typical scenario, MODAS is triggered automatically upon receipt of a mobilisation message, using the MODAS communications engine and a wireless bearer such as GPRS or TETRA. The process is very different to previous practice, where fire crews used to respond to a mobilisation call by taking a print out from the station, and then navigate to the incident using this and a hand-held map book. Now the mobilisation call is transmitted wirelessly to the cab. The LFRS command and control system (‘MOBS’ from 3tc) generates the address and the OS grid reference of the incident location, and MODAS communicates this to the in-cab computer.
LFRS has opted for the Airwave variant of MODAS, pointing out the resilience it affords them in the event of public mobile network being overloaded, such as in an accident on one of the many motorways in the county. A valuable feature of the MODAS messaging engine is that it provides a time-stamped record of all messages transmitted in the course of mobilisation, all acknowledgements received, and the progress of the vehicle from station to incident. This audit trail has proven invaluable for post-incident reviews, irrespective of whether the reviews are generated by a concern for health and safety, efficiency, effectiveness, or litigation.