Fire & Rescue Magazine:
Victoria’s push for Sat Comms

Country Fire Authority’s adoption of satellite broadband capability in a number of new mobile command vehicles is expected to have a positive impact on safety in Victoria, Australia, writes Jose Sanchez de Muniain.

The State of Victoria in southeast Australia may be the smallest mainland state but it is the most densely populated and it includes one of the largest cities, Melbourne. It has seen more than its fair share of large incidents in recent years, such as the 2008/9 fire season that included Black Saturday on 7 February 2009, where 173 people lost their lives, thousands of homes were destroyed and over 400,000 hectares burnt.

January/February 2011 then saw one of the worst floods in the state’s history, devastating nearly 2,000 properties and leaving over 17,000 homes without electricity.

In the wake of Black Saturday and the accompanying destruction of telecoms infrastructure, it was realised that a resilient communications network that could not be affected by fast-moving bush fires was critical.

Country Fire Authority (CFA) is the name of the fire service that provides firefighting and other emergency services to all of the country areas and regional townships within the state of Victoria, as well as large portions of the outer suburban areas and growth corridors of Melbourne not covered by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade.

Looking for potential solutions, members of CFA visited Interschutz in Leipzig, Germany, in 2010 where they came upon mobile data, video, voice and internet technology via UK-based satellite specialist company Excelerate.

Excelerate pioneered the introduction of the concept of satellite broadband to emergency services’ mobile command vehicles in the UK, and quickly found some vocal supporters of satellite within the UK Fire services. In 2007 Excelerate was awarded the technology contract to deliver18 comms-packed mobile incident response vehicles to support the UK national Hazardous Area Response Team (HART) programme, which was devised to respond to major emergencies, terrorist attacks, and USAR incidents. The HART programme was created on the back of the 7/7 London bombings and the requirement was for a fit-for-purpose, completed rollout in time for the London Olympics.

Following the meeting in Leipzig, founder and managing director of Excelerate David Savage visited Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney to see for himself the resilient comms situation in Australia, and found that with the exception of Queensland, the country’s fire and rescue services were fully reliant on public network 3G for communications, in addition to the existing analogue radio infrastructure.

“We lost all communications – both land and mobile – for a significant portion of southwest Victoria”

ExcelerateCFAcommvehiclereduced-650Operations Manager for CFA Craig Brownlie looks after the technical and specialist equipment and training for CFA. Three years after the fortuitous meeting in Leipzig, today he is making two mobile command vehicles fitted with satellite communications ready for operational service.

By strange coincidence within weeks of receiving the first vehicle its comms capability was to be put to the test in a real life situation. A major telephone exchange caught fire, recalls Craig. ‘We lost all communications – both land and mobile – for a signification portion of southwest Victoria and the chief ordered the new vehicle to respond even though it was still very early on in its commissioning process, and two to three months away from final operational deployment. Even though it was probably only at 30-40% of its efficiency, it provided the only form of communications for that whole area.

‘We had data, we had telephone, and we had links to our corporate network – which gave us access to our operational systems. It definitely proved itself very early on.’ In terms of ‘normal’ operations, the vehicles are definitely not going to sit in a garage somewhere to be taken out just for special occasions. An all-hazards approach is envisaged so they will be mobilised within all the environments that CFA responds to – be it structural fires, petrochemical incidents, warehouse fires etc.

As for large-scale incidents, Craig points out that what is regarded as ‘large’ elsewhere in the world takes on a different meaning in Australia. So far this year, he points out, Victoria has already experienced three wildland fires that have consumed thousands of hectares and been spread over 40-50 km. To handle these types of incidents 42 ‘Level 3’ Command Centres are spread across the state, with up to 100 people working in them depending on the size of the incident. ‘The mobile command vehicles will never fulfil the role of these Centres, but they may take the role of Divisional Command, mobilising to a staging area and talking back to the Command Centre. A single staging area could have 100+ vehicles requiring efficient managing and tasking.’

Craig is wary about defining the precise role of the new vehicles at such an early stage. ‘We don’t want to pigeonhole the truck’s capabilities and the intention is to keep it as flexible as possible. In my view its role will keep expanding and where we think it can do one thing it may actually do 10.’

That is not to say that CFA doesn’t already have a good picture of the possibilities that the new vehicle brings to the table. Craig has seen similar large command vehicles in action in the West Midlands area in the UK, and as part of the in-house testing process they have been deployed at some major public events in Melbourne.

‘We set up an emergency control centre at an event and then started streaming live video of what was happening around the event back to the emergency control centre, which blew them away. We provided them with a web address and then they linked to it.

‘Satellite is one thing but video streaming is another. One of the outcomes of Black Saturday was situational awareness. Historically all emergency services try to tell a picture to a control centre using words. Then the control centre interprets that and makes decisions based on what we tell them. Generally we get it right but I’m not going to say we always do, nobody always gets it right. The pictures tell a thousand words and it tells the story much quicker and better than anybody can say it.’

In addition to the two large command vehicles CFA has also purchased seven smaller, Mercedes-Sprinter (high roof/long wheel base) vehicles that have been engineered for satellite capability to be fitted at a later date, and which will be deployed as field operation vehicles (FOVs). These seven vehicles will have the same communications footprint as their larger brothers, but with fewer on-board PCs (three as opposed to eight). ‘They will have satellite so they can do everything in regards to business continuity, but they will do a slightly different job. If we look at the scale of operations, FOVs could be working in a sector, while the mobile command vehicles would work in a division, communicating back to incident control.’

Other areas such as warning and informing the public (also highlighted by the Black Saturday Royal Commission Report) are also envisaged to benefit from the new data capabilities of the vehicles. ‘We are in the process of setting up new intelligence units which will be looking at social media and gathering information and ensuring it gets to people in a timely manner – and the new vehicles will play a role in that.’ In addition, it is envisaged that the new vehicles will play a role in mutual aid operations, as CFA does provide support to neighbouring states such as New South Wales and Queensland. ‘Once we go we will be able to take the network with us and have full connectivity no matter where in Australia we are.’

Costs

Considering CFA’s satellite data requirements and budget constraints, Craig is adamant that it would have been impossible to acquire mobile satellite broadband capability locally. Neighbour Queensland was the first fire service in Australia to develop a mobile command vehicle with satellite, but a similar service for CFA would have been cost prohibitive. ‘From my knowledge what we pay a year Queensland pays a month in satellite costs – a huge difference in cost base. That is part of the reason why CFA approached Excelerate and worked with them to get them established in Australia – they have a good business model.’

The issue of cost is a familiar one for David Savage, who has built Excelerate’s satellite network model based on delivering a user experience associated with a low contended network at the economics of a highly contended one. This cannot be done unless the provider owns its capacity and can manage it dynamically in real time, he says, and he intends to replicate this model on the Australian continent. ‘There is a misconception that satellite broadband is expensive, but it doesn’t need to be, or at least it isn’t the way we do it. What I see as vital is that once a fire service buys into the proposition that it remains sustainable, otherwise there is no point.

‘Here in the UK Surrey Police are even using satellite for automatic number plate recognition. It is infinitely cheaper to use our network than 3G, and police services are saving significant amounts of money. The capital cost is different because they have to buy the equipment up front, but long term the running costs are significantly better.’

David emphasises that his business has never been about just providing satellite connectivity, but ensuring that emergency services have all the help and assistance required to ensure they can easily and simply use the technology that they need. As an example, he points at the company’s Digital Dashboard Management Interface (DDMI), which was designed to simplify and join together the plethora of disparate technologies found in today’s modern command and control vehicles. This can include wireless radio, laptops, wireless nodes, CCTV cameras, TV displays, satellite communications, and digital radio, amongst others.

The PBX (private branch exchange) included within DDMI also enables different types of radios and mobile phones to be quickly and easily patched together and linked into conference calls via simple drag and drop icons. This has been made possible through a system developed for the national ambulance service HART (Hazardous Area Response Teams) program in the UK. ‘HART use Airwave, mobile phones, as well as VoIP phones that operate over the satellite network as part of the NHS Truts’s telephone network – and some units use UHF and VHF radios. What we developed as part of the interface is the ability in each HART vehicle for all voice communications to go through a central comms hub, converting each to the same standard so they can all speak to each other. So if a call comes from an NHS Ambulance Trust, it can be patched through to someone at an incident 800 feet away with a UHF radio. The guy on board the vehicle simply drags and drops the icons on the screen, and the two are connected regardless of the technology. The point is that the HART’s team of paramedics can now concentrate on being clinicians and not part IT specialist; the same goes for firefighters and police officers.’

“We are not IT gurus and we need something easy to use – so you press a button and it works”

Technology such as this is being appreciated by CFA, says Craig. ‘We are not IT gurus and we need something easy to use – so you press a button and it works. We are happy that this technology is simple – we can train you in an hour to set up satellite in the vehicle, and we can train you in a day to be a high-end user. It is intuitive for firefighters to use, and this was key in our R&D, and why we decided to purchase the equipment.’

Craig is now working on putting together a training package for fellow officers, but he points out that this has been a lot simpler than other programmes he has been involved in (eg hazmat training manuals for new vehicles). New technology also means new standard operating procedures, another aspect that has to be developed in-house. ‘We’ve gone over to a position where satellite is always our primary method of connection. So the first thing is to connect to satellite, and only if it fails – for whatever reason – will we fall over to 3G as redundant connection.’

As part of its continued support of CFA as well as to expand into further areas of Australia and New Zealand, Excelerate is setting up headquarters in Melbourne. ‘We have an engineer seconded at CFA that carries out exercises with the firefighters and helps them understand the applications and how to get the most out of them. That is what we did in the UK – we get close to the sector, and all being well the work we do becomes the benchmark for that sector,’ concludes David.