The catastrophic fires of Black Saturday in early 2009 placed huge stresses on the Country Fire Authority’s (CFA) command communications infrastructure.This was hardly surprising given the speed, scale and intensity of the many huge fires that roared across the state that day.Following the disastrous loss of life, inquiries were conducted to understand what went wrong and what could be done to respond more effectively to future fires, from the normal seasonal bushfires regularly experienced by the state to exceptional events of the type such as Black Saturday.

One key need identified by CFA was the need for a new type of mobile command vehicle to replace the existing 20-year-old vehicles which featured little more than a computer, radios and map tables. Another key area of concern was the need to reduce reliance on public communications networks, which were liable to collapse when burnt out by rapidly spreading fires.

In the process of searching for solutions to these challenges a team from CFA attended the 2010 Interschutz international fire exhibition held in Germany, where they found what they were looking for – fully developed and tested command vehicles featuring mobile satellite broadband, wireless video and interoperable communications. CFA didn’t need to reinvent the wheel for their new vehicles; the ‘wheel’ had already been invented, by the Wales-based high tech firm Excelerate Technology Group Considered to be some of the most advanced mobile command vehicles in the world, they are now used extensively within the UK fire and police services and the national ambulance service to improve real time information sharing, incident management and effective communications without any reliance on public networks. Excelerate Technology Group was selected to supply, integrate and support the communications solutions adopted by CFA, working in close partnership with Australian vehicle specialist Mills- Tui.

‘In Australia, the catalyst for change wasn’t terrorism but the cataclysmic events of Black Saturday, where around 173 people lost their lives in one day,” David Savage, founder and CEO of Excelerate Technology Group said.‘This triggered an inquiry by the Royal Commission which identified a number of critical command communications issues for the emergency services. They found that the emergency services, just like in London after the London bombings, in that peak period of activity, were experiencing communications problems. They didn’t have enough technology and they relied on their public network far too heavily. This is a watchword with all emergency services the world over; if they are overly reliant on a public network then they are courting disaster.Probability wise, they will one day get caught out and be found wanting,’ he said

At Interschutz the Australian visitors were given a demonstration of the vehicles’ capabilities and were invited to Australia to discuss how Excelerate could export their expertise and capability into Australia.‘ In the UK, fire service command vehicles have a comprehensive suite of data, voice and video applications which make satellite bandwidth truly compelling and very useful,’ David said.

‘Mobile satellite broadband has moved from being a nice-to-have to being a must-have, and anybody who is considering a new command vehicle in the UK these days absolutely has to have satellite broadband.’ ‘The Australians started by saying we are building new command vehicles and we want everything you have in the UK on those command vehicles. So, in addition to mobile satellite broadband they have a full suite of cameras, mast cameras, deployable cameras using the COFDM transmission standard, bodyworn cameras and perimeter cameras, resilient communications, and things like private GSM. We are not simply bolting a satellite dish onto a vehicle.’

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The satellite being used gives full coverage of the continent of Australia, including Tasmania, and New Zealand. The vehicles also utilise DDMI (the Digital Dashboard Management Interface).DDMI provides a simpleto- use interface for managing the wide range of technologies carried on vehicles, from deploying the satellite dish and weather monitoring to patching communications together from different devices (mobile phones, radios etc) via an interoperable intercom. ‘DDMI is being seen as one of the best means for overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to introducing new and very comprehensive technologies to people who actually aren’t IT experts,’ David said. ‘We have never lost sight of who our customers are – they are fire officers, paramedics and policemen. They are not meant to be re-trained to become IT specialists.’The two vehicles were handed over to CFA in December 2012 and were not strictly scheduled to be operational until July this year. However, a fire in a telephone exchange in late 2012, that had a significant impact on terrestrial communications for about 250 kilometres, led to the deployment of one of their new command vehicles ahead of schedule. That vehicle actually became the only means of communication for anybody in that region, reinforcing the message about the importance of resilience and business continuity. ‘These are the first vehicles of their type in Australia, they really are pioneering. Even in New Zealand, where there are vehicles that have a satellite dish on them, no one is using the levels and types of capability the way our customers in the UK do or CFA,’ David said. One person who has seen at first hand the unique benefits of the new vehicles is Craig Brownlie, Acting Manager – Structural Planning, CFA, who is responsible for the introduction of the two new command vehicles. ‘We needed to fix a specification for new vehicles, which we replace about every 20 years, that would be fit-for-purpose for the next 20 years. We did a lot of national and international research to ensure that we have better situational awareness for our incident management teams, delivering critical intelligence to the people who make decisions in a timely way, and in a way that is firefighter-friendly,’ Craig said. ‘When large fires spread they burn out the entire telecommunications infrastructure that is in place. This reduces our capacity to communicate at a critical time. We wanted to make sure that we have resilience built into our communications, for both data and voice, and this is why we selected the satellite option.’ ‘The vehicles will be used at level 2 and level 3 fires, working at divisional or ICC level depending on the type of incident. The vehicles are designed to be flexible for us. We don’t pigeon-hole them to do only one job. We want them to be able to perform multiple roles such as managing staging areas, with 100 to 200 vehicles and 2 – 3000 people.’ ‘The first round of training has been completed. We have taken the vehicle out on a number of occasions for field testing. It’s done very well. We have been using the video facility such as the mast camera and the deployable cameras. We have also had the bodyworn cameras out for field testing, live video feeds back into the vehicle from 1.8 km, which is phenomenal. We think these vehicles are “cutting edge”, and they are upgradeable. They have to be.’ ‘Excelerate have people onsite and available in Australia 24/7, providing exceptional support for the commissioning of these vehicles. There has been support provided throughout the whole process – briefings, tenders, commissioning – which has been fantastic. ‘The interfaces that we use, the Excelerate technologies, such as DDMI, are a real advantage from my perspective. With minimal training, or for people who haven’t been using the vehicle every day, they can push a few buttons and it performs as required. It is very simple to use. We have also had a few of our own special requirements that weren’t in the system, and Excelerate have been fantastic in integrating new features into DDMI for us.’