When the West Midlands Fire Service, one of the largest urban fire and rescue services in the UK, undertook the process of deciding what communications solutions it required in its new mobile command vehicle, it started with a clean slate and a clear agenda. The vehicle would reflect the real-world needs of fire commanders on the ground, it would be capable of supporting improved multi-agency command cooperation, and it would be future-proof.
With a major urban conurbation such as Birmingham to manage, including high density housing, factories, warehouses, shopping centres and sporting venues, plus Olympic responsibilities in 2012 (football events in Coventry), the service was determined that its investment in mobile command communications would deliver tangible long term benefits.
To achieve these objectives, the vehicle would of course include the many new advanced communications technologies now available for use in mobile command vehicles and throughout incident grounds, such as mobile satellite broadband and wireless video. But the service was also determined that a very strong effort would be put into determining how these technologies could be best used to deliver clear benefits to firefighters at every level.
Working from this starting point, the service involved its staff in the project from the very beginning, asking them what they thought they needed, and doing so at a time when the lessons learned on operational deployments were fresh in their minds. The service’s robust post-incident debriefing process, in particular, allowed the members of the Technical and Operational Support Directorate to learn directly from operational officers what types of support they thought would be most useful. These insights could then be translated into system and layout specifications as part of the overall vehicle design.
Brainstorming meetings were also a core part of the research and specification process for the new command vehicle, drawing on commanders’ views to define exactly what types of communications, imagery, and command and control systems they thought would best deliver the types of support they needed across a wide variety of incident scenarios.
In the words of Paul Burnham, Group Commander, Emergency Response, and a leading member of the team managing the vehicle’s design and acquisition: ‘Obviously, to resolve an incident successfully good command and control is absolutely imperative, and for effective command and control you need an up-to-date operational picture.
‘What we wanted to do was take advantage of advances in the technological world to support incident commanders and give them enhanced capabilities. That’s why we looked at working with Excelerate towards developing a mobile operational platform that could talk across different communications channels and receive imagery, thereby helping incident commanders make better informed decisions.’
‘West Midlands Fire Service is the second largest fire service outside London and we respond to a huge number of varying incidents. What we have also got is a very robust debriefing process. If there are certain things that appear during our debriefing process we can then identify ways in which we can improve the way commanders manage an incident or the way that we can support the incident commander with information, to help the commander resolve the incident.’
The lessons learned from these debriefing sessions were then combined with more specific findings from continual research.
‘Once we had an idea of the concept we wanted, I got some of the key stakeholders together – predominantly operational officers who would be incident commanders. We had a series of meetings, thrashing through what information would assist them in making their decisions, and we also looked at the best way of presenting that information.
‘We looked at information overload and things we could put in place to reduce this, to make those elements of information pertinent and timely. We did that with key stakeholders.
‘Then we put together a user specification, a technical specification and a vehicle specification. The three separate specifications were then merged together into a single document and it then went through a standard procurement process.’
Excelerate Technology won the tender for the supply, integration and ongoing support of the many communications solutions that needed to be incorporated into the vehicle. The company is the leading supplier in the UK for the supply and integration of data, video, voice and internet via satellite broadband and wireless solutions to all three emergency services (including major initiatives such as the national HART ambulance programme).
Excelerate is also a supplier to the British Red Cross, local and central government and commercial organisations. The HART ambulance project has 18 sets of forward command vehicles throughout the UK, and the British Red Cross has six mobile command vehicles. All these vehicles feature communications solutions from Excelerate. The company also develops and sells the unique Sherpa climbing camera and communications platform.
Many UK fire services are already using Excelerate-supplied solutions for mobile command vehicles, including Strathclyde Fire and Rescue, West Yorkshire FRS, and Royal Berkshire FRS. The company, which manages its own satellite network, has a unique understanding of the needs of emergency services and the different types of new solutions becoming available.
Most importantly, given Excelerate’s experience in handling so many different installations in a wide variety of types and sizes of vehicle, the company has a unique understanding of how the various solutions on offer can be effectively integrated into vehicles (and upgrades retrofitted into existing vehicles) to support improved fire fighting practice. Excelerate’s depth of knowledge and experience enable the company to work with customers through every stage of a project, identifying best-of-breed solutions at best value.
Having such an experienced supplier was hugely helpful to West Midlands Fire Service as the vehicle build progressed. ‘We had constant dialogue with our suppliers and they were flexible enough to be able to adapt as our user requirements grew, and of course future-proofing the whole system allowed us that freedom.
Building in a capability to support multi-agency cooperation was a key requirement (problems in achieving real-time multi-agency interoperability and a common operational picture having been identified in numerous post-incident enquiries as a source of problems during major incidents).
‘The key feature is to have a mobile operating platform that delivers up-to-date information to the incident commander and which allows him to command and share that information in a multi-agency manner and in a real-time environment
‘There is still work to be done on that side. But one of the things I was very keen to do, for example, was to support multi-agency working. We allocated a seat on the vehicle to our key partners, we have police Airwave radios on board the vehicle, and we are able to obtain imagery from the police helicopter
‘For wireless video, the vehicle we procured has got a sixteen-feed capability. That goes to the core of our requirement. It allows us to see in real time the front, back, sides and an aerial view of any incident, as well as inside using body-worn cameras. We can now have a common operational picture that is completely up to date.
Training and exercising on the new mobile command vehicle has been critical to ensuring the service receives maximum benefit from its investment. ‘We have done an immense amount of training,’ says Paul Burnham. ‘We train the staff on software, we have a mock-up of the vehicle at the command development centre, which they train on regularly, and the vehicle itself is used at incidents where they consolidate that work. Around 100 practitioners are trained to use the vehicle plus we have duty officers, so in total we have around 120 people.
Martin Saunders, sales director for Excelerate Technology, has been hugely impressed with the approach taken by West Midlands Fire Service. ‘When West Midlands Fire Service came to Excelerate with its procurement specification it was hugely helpful for our team to have such a clear idea of what was required.
‘We were delighted we could support West Midlands Fire Service with best-of-breed and best value solutions, which we have either developed in-house or which we source from leading equipment suppliers from around the world. Combining these various solutions into one seamless, integrated system has led to the creation of a highly advanced new mobile command vehicle which will support public and fire fighter safety through the West Midlands for many years.’
The final judgement must of course depend on results, and these are impressive. Says Paul Burnham:
‘Commanders are now seeing the benefits of having the vehicle. I see that in the debrief reports we receive after incidents. We are getting very good feedback.’