Fire and rescue services are always looking for ways to improve effective communication on the incident ground. We have taken advantage of the upgrade to our fleet to create a baseline for our connectivity that will help us improve our operational response.

Words: Phil Pells, Area Commander, Northamptonshire Fire and Rescue Service

I’ve always been one for innovation; and believe there are opportunities for further innovation in the sector. We have taken the approach that we know what the operational problem is, and we let the technical experts provide a solution. It is the partnership between us and our suppliers that allows innovation to take place.

Integrating JESIP

You can see innovation in our joint command vehicle, which is still one of the most technically advanced emergency services vehicles in the country. We wanted to design and build a vehicle that allowed us to tactically command incidents independently, or jointly with police and partners at the scene.

The joint command vehicle demonstrates our commitment to the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Principles (JESIP). We know that co- location is critical for an effective response; it helps us to develop a joint understanding of the risk at an incident through shared situational awareness.

With the change in our governance and funding position, we have been able to start investing in the rest of our fleet. We have invested £3.5 million in eight new fire engines and a new aerial appliance. We have taken what we learned from developing our joint command vehicle and used that to drive the innovation in our fire appliances, putting connectivity front and centre of our approach. If we get that right, we can make sure our appliances really are smart.

Smart appliances

We think of them as smart appliances and there are many reasons for doing so. The ability to connect our fire appliances to our systems, enables crews to gather information and intelligence from community safety, fire protection and risk inspection visits and input data directly into our systems reducing paper-based forms.

We have essentially created a resilient, digitised mobile office. They are also mini command units, but of course we still need the joint command unit at larger incidents and events. This is a significant step towards modernising our fleet, but we are still running many of our analogue processes and it will take time to transition to achieve our aspiration for a paperless environment.

In addition to our eight new fire appliances, we have procured a 42-metre aerial appliance. We didn’t want to miss an opportunity to use it to further enhance our technology infrastructure. From this and from our eight new appliances, we will be able to stream video and access data. We decided to enhance the camera capability on the aerial appliance, streaming video via COFDM (coded orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing) and LTE (long term evolution) which is ultra-reliable when it comes to coverage and latency back to the joint command unit, our new appliances, fire control and remote command rooms.

Seamless connectivity

A key focus is how we can make connectivity seamless for our responders. We want to be able to interconnect between our appliances, and we want to connect on the incident ground as if we are in a fixed location, whether fire control or joint command facility. We want to share video regardless of where it comes from, CCTV, drones, body worn cameras and delivers it to any authorised location. We’re well on the way to interconnectivity but we want to be able to scale that over time and that’s what our planning now will enable us to do in the future. Our vision is certainly for a connected digital fleet.

We are striving to achieve interoperability, not just with police and ambulance but with other agencies. We are looking at how we can expand our resilient connectivity with our Local Resilience Forum partners.

Future proofing our fleet

We are reviewing our future fleet requirements which include new specialist appliances and enhancing our wildfire capability. Our recent experience of responding during the heatwave demonstrated how we need to re- evaluate risk and consider all the potential climate change impacts and how we can improve our response with such connected technology.

The traditional operating model where an incident coalesces around a single command point does not work in all scenarios. Flooding and wildfires challenge us, in that they are wide ranging events in a geographical sense, and we need connectivity to enhance situational awareness. Our smart appliances enable this at a tactical level but also feed the strategic command which helps to support our wider local resilience response.

One of the challenges that comes with sharing data between partners is addressing security concerns. We have worked with Excelerate to design a way of splitting up our network to create guest areas for other organisations to access information and intelligence in real time. It’s a super flexible but secure and resilient system that enables us to make critical decisions at the right time. For us, this is the way we can adhere to the JESIP principles that are fundamental to our interoperability and approach to joint working.

Learning from incidents

We’ve worked hard to integrate National Operational Guidance into our service and a key aspect is learning lessons from incidents. The capability from our new appliances and aerial provides an opportunity to capture data, audio, video and documents that feed into single and multi-agency operational learning processes. We are focused on making sure that we can store and retrieve our data to feed our learning systems: we want to be able to extract the right data to maximise lessons to improve response via effective shared learning products. We are currently exploring options for an operational learning platform to connect this enhanced data collated.

I’m excited about our journey so far, and I know that by having the right connectivity infrastructure in place, we have a strong foundation on which to evolve our smart appliances to improve our response and engagement with our community. We have learned a lot from working with our technology partner, Excelerate, and have been very happy to share that with many other fire and rescue services and other emergency services globally.

It may be invisible technology but it’s the way we will be able to make the successful transition from the analogue world to a digital future.

Discover more about our work with the Northamptonshire Joint Operations Team here