BAPCO 2024: Smart alerting - a new channel for UK Fire and Rescue Services

In this BAPCO speaker preview, Steve Sadler, Strategic Consultant for FireServiceRota, explains how a new alerting channel for UK Fire and Rescue Services allows fire service personnel to see accurate, real-time information about who is able to attend an incident via their mobile phone and desktops.
BAPCO 2024: Smart alerting - a new channel for UK Fire and Rescue Services
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In this BAPCO speaker preview, Steve Sadler, Strategic Consultant for FireServiceRota, explains how a new alerting channel for UK Fire and Rescue Services allows fire service personnel from incident commanders, station managers and fire control operators through to firefighters themselves to see accurate, real-time information about who is able to attend an incident via their mobile phone and desktops.

What is smart alerting?

Smart alerting, provided by FireServiceRota, is a relatively new alerting channel for UK Fire and Rescue Services. Whilst our system and software includes rostering and planning for wholetime firefighters, our smart alerting is predominantly used by On-call firefighters and officers, to supplement, compliment, and if required, replace pager alerting. Smart alerting allows fire service personnel from incident commanders, station managers and fire control operators through to firefighters themselves to see accurate, real-time information about who is able to attend an incident via their mobile phone and desktops.

Smartphone apps for mobilisation are just an individual piece of an entire system designed to ensure readiness and reduce response times. A mobilising app starts to add value to the paging process long before the alert comes in, and it keeps adding value well after the initial alertAn app is able to send information about the user’s schedule to the availability management system. It can also receive and reply to messages generated by the system or other users to maintain constant and relevant communication with the manager and the rest of the crew. In summary, an app can do more than mobilisation alone, it is also able to track and capture data such as attending crew, turnout and travel times, and visual evidence of the incident that can later be used for reporting and to continuously improve the quality of service. FireServiceRota provides seven tiers of resilience to ensure preparedness and a timely response to fire stations: 

  • Planning: firefighters schedule their availability. FireServiceRota then continuously monitors whether there is full crew complement available, and warns the right crew members ahead of time in case of shortfalls.

  • Geofencing: Depending on the user’s personal consent to share location information, the geo fencing features of our system can also make the expected time of arrival of each firefighter visible to other responders and/or allow you to manage availability, and support sophisticated and smart ways to cluster and share staffing resource between nearby fire stations which may independently have limited resource and skills but collectively can continue to maintain a full service to the public. Personnel can receive a notification when they accidentally travel outside the turn in area of their fire station while booked available. They are also offered the option to change their rota and book unavailable with one click.

  • Alerting: At the moment of alert, all available users are notified via Push Notification and (optionally) SMS. Users can confirm their attendance by responding to the push notification on the lock screen of their smartphone. Personnel accept or reject the alert via their smartphone. Their response is immediately visible on a monitor in the station and within the app.

  • Resilience: The system monitors confirmations, and compares responding crew against minimum crewing levels. If a shortfall is detected, the system falls back to (re)alerting all personnel possessing the missing skills, regardless of their availability.

  • Responding: While personnel are travelling toward the station, their real-time location and estimated time of arrival (ETA) can be shown on the station monitor.

  • Reporting: The officer in charge registers who is part of his crew via the app. This is immediately reflected in the pre-filled incident report, which also contains time stamped crew responses, and flags discrepancies between crew availability and their actual response status.

  • Fairness and flexibility: Smart alerting al firefighters can be selected, and alerted smartly based on fairness, their skills, and availability.  If someone rejects the alert, or fails to acknowledge in time, the next available firefighter with the missing skill(s) will be alerted. This is a step forward evolution in alerting On-call firefighters, allowing them to be available when needed but free when possible.

Do you primarily leverage paging, and if so using what technology/standard? Do you incorporate broadband into your operations at all?

FSR uses mobile phones, texts, and phone calls, all of which can be set over any standard mobile phone network, generation, and of course via broadband connected devices, to send and receive information relating to planning and alerting, alongside leveraging paging. At present, most UKFRS's still use pagers. Their adoption of the latest technology is contingent on each FRSs current technology, requirements, and required functionality. FireServiceRota can work alongside any FRSs current CAD or pager system, with smart alerting features adding a layer of resilience (when traditional pagers fail).

App + Pager: At present the most reliable combination is to use both by combining the reliability of pagers with the intelligence of smartphones. ‍The Swissphone s.QUAD Voice two-way pager, for example, can connect to select smartphones via Bluetooth, which allows firefighters to interact with both devices and get the best of both worlds. Adding the capabilities of FireServiceRota's app to assist crew planning and mobilisation allows FRSs to achieve better response times and this ultra-reliable combination.

How has paging technology developed, and how have you incorporated that into operational strategy?

The development of paging technology in the UK fire and rescue service reflects a broader trend in emergency communications, which has evolved significantly over the years. Originally, fire and rescue services relied on sirens and bells to call firefighters to the station. This method was effective in small towns but less so in larger areas. Paging technology was introduced as a more efficient way to alert firefighters of an emergency. Early pagers were simple radio devices that could receive a specific tone or signal, alerting the carrier to respond to the station or a particular incident. Until 2017, in the United Kingdom there were two network providers: Vodafone and Capita. However, Vodafone’s withdrawal from the market meant until recently PageOne was the UK’s only remaining supplier of paging services. With the advent of digital technology pagers, and alerting solutions have become more sophisticated. Digital pagers allow for text messages to be sent, providing more detailed information about the nature and location of the emergency. This is a significant improvement, as it allows firefighters to prepare en route and improved response times. At the same time, the development of CAD systems means many pagers are now integrated to receive automatic alerts from these systems. This means faster and more accurate dispatching of resources. Modern pagers used by fire and rescue services in the UK may include features such as GPS tracking, status buttons (to indicate whether a firefighter is responding), and the ability to send messages back to the dispatch center. There has been a gradual shift towards using mobile technology and smartphone apps. These platforms offer several advantages, such as the ability to send richer information (including images and videos), real-time communication, and integration with other digital tools used by emergency services. Despite advancements, there are challenges. Network coverage can be an issue, especially in rural areas. Also, the reliability of mobile networks in large-scale emergencies, when systems are under strain, is a concern. Therefore, pagers, known for their reliability and ability to operate on separate frequencies, continue to be an essential tool.

Throughout these developments, the key focus has always been on improving response times, ensuring reliability, and providing clear and accurate information to responders. As technology continues to advance, it's likely that the UK fire and rescue service will continue to adopt new and improved methods of communication. In this sense FireServiceRota is already future proofed as it integrates with smart pagers and considers user availability to send the alert. We believe the future will see further integration of paging technology with emerging technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) for predictive analytics, and improved network resilience to ensure uninterrupted communication during emergencies. Moreover, as you'd expect, each new generation of mobile phone network makes smart alerting even more viable, reliable and likely to become the primary means by which On-call firefighters are alerted in the future. 

Is there a sense of shared best practice across the UK Fire and Rescue Service when it comes to this kind of alerting?

In a word, no. Whilst sharing best practice, standardising data, and optimizing use of resources collectively across FRS in the UK is indeed an aspiration for the sector and its overarching bodies, the disparate nature of the UK's fire and rescue services - which in England includes 45 FRSs operating a variety of duty systems for the operational workforce - means each FRSs often has its own unique requirements based on their duty system (full time, part time, On-call etc...), topography, access and ambitions for use of technology amongst many other factors. Within this context there are disparate, independent and private CAD system providers, pager providers, and alerting, availability and planning providers offering a variety of services and SaaS and hardware. FSR is the only system currently offering this kind of comprehensive alerting package which integrates paging solutions, with smart technology, software and geo fencing features which can ensure a FRS fit for the future.

Steve Sadler is speaking on day one at the BAPCO Annual Event 2024 on 'Smart alerting, attendance confirmation and two-way paging'. You can register for the BAPCO Event here.  

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