Using the new ICTs and drawing on data aggregated from a variety of sources could in the long term help reduce the number of fires annually and also enable the fire and rescue services to work more efficiently.

Fire Risk Prevention: Data analysis, sensors and drones to the rescue

In the United States there are over a million recorded fires annually but when it comes to obtaining basic information, the fire and rescue services often find themselves using extremely archaic processes. One result is that some 30,000 firefighters are injured on the job every year. The current acute lack of information often has dreadful consequences, which could perhaps be avoided by harnessing new information and communication technologies, suggests a report entitled ‘Research Roadmap for Smart Fire Fighting’. The report was drawn up by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Fire Protection Research Foundation, which was given the job of making an inventory of all the digital tools that could possibly serve to improve the working conditions of US firefighters.

The report strongly advocates using cyber-physical systems, which enable wireless interaction in real time between IT systems and physical systems, which basically means that data can be efficiently captured and recorded. The authors argue that recourse to the latest technology, providing real-time access to vital data, could improve the safety and effectiveness of the 1.1 million firefighters in the United States and greatly reduce the number of accidents.

The report’s authors refer to the process of using a wide range of helpful data as Smart Fire-Fighting. Bringing together sets of data on all the buildings in a locality, based on inspection reports or digital models of the structures, could enable firefighters to quickly determine the fastest easy way into a burning building. In fact New York firefighters are already working this way. The Big Apple fire and rescue teams use a system based on predictive data drawn from many different sources – including such information as construction permits and power cut records – which allows them to update the risk profiles of the 330,000 buildings in the city’s database on a daily basis.

The main concepts of Smart Fire-Fighting, drawing heavily on data analysis

Having up-to-date data on tap means that firefighters on the way to an incident can figure out the best way to get into the building or site, view the layout of the building, analyse any pictures taken by surveillance cameras, and obtain information on any potentially dangerous materials onsite before they enter.

Once inside the fire zone, sensors installed inside the building and also inside their firefighting equipment make their job safer in terms of detecting hazardous materials, analysing temperatures, and tracking the positions of firemen moving around the building. Sensors embedded in company staff badges could also help the team to find anyone who is trapped inside the building. Modern technology can help firefighters to act much faster and with greater precision.

The report also underlines the potential advantages of using robots and drones equipped with sensors, plus other equipment which can function autonomously, an example being the robots sent to look inside nuclear power stations after an accident. Such technology provides a 360° view of the scene and can transmit essential data that will have a major impact on the success of any operations carried out. Along similar lines is the Ambulance-Drone, a prototype designed to transport a defibrillator or other vital medical equipment at a speed of 100 kilometres an hour, which is likely to increase the victim’s chances of survival.

Some of these initiatives require highly sophisticated equipment, but many of them basically just call for improvements in communication and information circulation. For instance, ensuring interoperability between databases – e.g. local authority records on the one hand and company-owned data on the other – technical systems and other networks could certainly guide decision-making and consequently improve the agility and efficiency of the fire and rescue services, the report points out.

By Anthéa Delpuech