Welsh fire authority keeps firefighters hot on the trail
South Wales Fire Service turns to Computacenter and Trinity for wireless technology that sends fire crews crucial information.
This article appeared in Computing, 28th April 2005. To view a copy of the original article, please click here
With an area covering more than 1,000 square miles, South Wales is one of the largest fire services in the UK. Its 50 fire stations are staffed by about 1,400 full time and retained firefighters, who service a population of just over 1.4 million and respond to more than 60,000 emergency calls every year.
These calls can vary from serious road traffic accidents to chemical spillages and potentially fatal house fires. The initial information required at different incidents can vary considerably, so it is essential that attending fire crews are able to source additional data while responding to individual call-outs.
Although much of this data is available via brigade control, the service's intranet and hard copy documents, it is not always practical for firefighters to gather information from these sources while travelling to or attending an incident.
When South Wales Fire Service (SWFS) embarked on the rollout of sophisticated in-cab computer systems, it also opted to include a wireless data link to ensure firefighters could access real-time information held at its headquarters.
Life saving information
To deliver practical information electronically to staff and vehicles in the field, fire services across the UK have started adopting Vehicle Mounted Data Systems (VMDS). The systems, which feature sturdy touch-sensitive tablet PC devices running Microsoft Windows Tablet PC Edition, allow firefighters to access a wealth of information in their cabs, from roadmaps to building designs.
"VMDS began as an extension of an ordinary A-Z, but has now been expanded to include potentially life saving information on chemicals, car designs, building use and occupancy numbers", says Chris Willaims, IT manager for SWFS. "This data is stored on a central intranet, so that one data set can serve both mobile users and PC users back at the stations and in other fire service premises."
Because of the volume and complexity of the information involved, SWFS opted to store part of the data on the client, and the remainder at its headquarters near Cardiff.
"Some of the data, such as our standard operating procedures, changes regularly, so it is more efficient to access these direct from the intranet rather than keep updating the clients", says Williams. This meant that South Wales not only had to deploy a new server back-end to support the system, but also provide the VMDS with wireless connectivity.
To achieve this, SWFS worked with its IT provider Computercenter, and with Trinity Expert Systems, which had previously helped with the implementation of the brigade's intranet.
"South Wales knew exactly what information it needed to put into the cabs. The challenge was putting the right technology in place to deliver the information, and which was up to the task and capable of functioning in its everyday working environment", says Jamie Allender, mobile business manager for Computacenter.
Making the wireless connection
One key area of the project with which South Wales needed assistance was implementing the wireless connectivity for the in-cab systems. "The brigade needed to ensure that it has a robust and continuous link between the client devices and the data repository", says Allender.
"Working with Vodafone, we deployed a solution which offered excellent availability, and although the current wireless connectivity is GPRS, the solution is actually platform independent. This means that introducing new technology such as 3G or a different make of tablet is fairly straightforward, and won't necessarily require a redesign of the system."
"There are a number of areas to consider when deploying a mobile solution, including the client device, access method, infrastructure and applications, and the intrinsic interdependencies between these elements", he says.
To help ensure the effective integration of the different products and services, Computacenter coordinated all the suppliers involved in the project to provide the brigade with a single point of contact. It also configured the new servers that underpin the system and sourced more robust printers for the fire appliances.
The first VMDS went live in March 2004, and the rollout of the equipment to the last few of its 67 front line appliances will be completed by June this year. With the system in place, all fire crews will have access to a massive bank of data, which includes the design specification of most cars manufactured between 1990 and 2003; the properties and risks of more than 30,000 chemical substances; and detailed building and street maps.
"The new system provides our front line officers with timely, accurate and relevant information when responding to emergency calls. by providing access to a targeted flow of information, we are able to improve the way we respond to call-outs and locate incidents faster in unfamiliar areas", says Brian Fraser, the brigade's chief fire officer.
This, however, is just the first phase of VMDS and the brigade's mobility strategy, as Williams explains: "We are already looking at the possibilities of 3G, and providing officers with similar information via tablet PCs. VMDS will really come into its own in the next two or three years - the potential is immense."