Enabling critical thinking

Published:  29 November, 2016

Technology has brought immense benefits to the fire service, but are we relying too much on our smartphones and tablets? Firefighter Bart van Leeuwen has come up with a new philosophy of operational information delivery in which technology is not the aim but the enabler, and which he hopes will create 'smarter' firefighters, reports Ann-Marie Knegt.

Firefighters have become too reliant on mobile phones and readily accessible information, and technology is having a ‘dumbing down’ effect, said Bart van Leeuwen, owner of software company Netage and firefighter at Amsterdam/Amsteland Fire Service, during the keynote address at the NFPA conference in Las Vegas this year. As a result of this concern van Leeuwen has come up with a solution that he believes addresses the problem while helping firefighters regain critical situational awareness and enhancing their essential knowledge.

'How many phone numbers do you know by heart these days?’ van Leeuwen asks. He predicts that most people will only know their own number, and he emphasises that this has nothing to do with anyone’s age or deterioration of memory.

The reason, he asserts, is simple laziness. ‘Now we have smartphones, we don’t need to remember anyone’s number. This reliance on technology is so engrained in our society that technology itself is taken for granted. For firefighters, this can be deadly. There’s a tendency to assume that machines are always right. But what if they are not? What if they fail?

'There is an automatic acceptance that whatever you see on your phone or iPad is correct. However, we have to make sure that we create "thinking" firefighters. We need to train people to become sceptical again.’

Firefighters must learn to be critical about the information they receive, he argues, and it is equally essential that the right infrastructure is in place for delivering that information.

‘We have to start out with an open mind and begin adopting the standards and technologies that people are using to exchange information. We have to tap into these, instead of saying: “we are the fire service and we dictate how you share this information with us”. For many policymakers, this is a new concept. Education is required.’

It is an interesting challenge given the way fire services currently work with technology and the prevalence of vendor lock-in. Also known as proprietary or customer lock-in, this makes a customer dependent on a vendor for products and services, unable to use another vendor without substantial switching costs. It happens all the time in the fire service, says van Leeuwen, and it is an obstacle for data sharing.

‘With the increasing digitalisation of equipment, vendor lock-in makes much of it rapidly redundant and it slows down innovation. Everybody is developing new telematically-driven systems that provide an enormous amount of data, but as long as every vendor protects this data about the operations of the fire service as their own, we cannot leverage it on a greater scale. What we need to do going forward is make sure we can easily tap into this available data.’

Put simply, fire services are not currently using data to its full potential – and this is information that has the potential to save lives, prevent accidents, and change the way firefighters respond to incidents.

‘The chances are that if something goes wrong during an incident response, we’ll figure out in hindsight that with all the available information in the public arena about the incident, that the accident could have been prevented. We might find out that we sent firefighters into a blaze they should never have gone into, for example. This is a completely new situation compared to 20 years ago when the information that could have prevented these accidents simply wasn’t out there.’

In van Leeuwen’s NFPA keynote address he highlighted that in order to access and exchange this information, it is necessary to switch to an open platform. ‘When I say open platform, many people think that their information will be out in the open and can be modified by everyone. We should really say “open standard platform”. The next challenge then quickly presents itself. We need to make sure that we can also exchange the meaning of what we are communicating.’

Van Leeuwen explains that the fire service has a common vocabulary, which includes a great deal of jargon and lots of abbreviations. People tend to assume that everyone else uses the same jargon that they do – but this is not necessarily true.

Assuming a common understanding of certain terms can lead to confusion if no definition is provided, as van Leeuwen explains. ‘When I talk about my job, I talk about things such as ladders and fire engines, but these expressions mean different things in the US and in Europe. These terms are driven by culture, jobs and organisational patterns, and they are called folksonomies, which is the opposite of a taxonomy.’

A taxonomy consists of a structured set of terminology with definitions attached. A folksonomy is created within an industry or social structure and the definitions are only correct within that context.

This could lead to problems if two communicating parties use the same word for different concepts, without realising they are talking about different things. While two people talking face to face may realise the problem through other cues, it is a greater issue for digital communications. Van Leeuwen underlines this with a recent example he came across while working on a water evacuation plan with the Dutch fire service and Dutch water board.

‘Flood evacuation is obviously high on the agenda for the fire service. The water board in The Netherlands has begun to open its data to the emergency services, so people can start looking at the information the water board is collecting about water levels.

‘A member of fire service staff started going through the data and found a map of water flows and the dykes along these. One of the dykes was labelled “critical”. He informed his commander and a preliminary crisis centre was set up. The fire service then approached the water board about the state of the dyke. The staff at the water board didn’t understand what the fuss was about. “Critical” for the water board meant that they would have to look at it within a few years. “Critical” for the fire service meant delivering immediate attention.’

This example underlines the importance of maintaining a clear terminology, especially in multi-agency scenarios where interoperability is a must.

Van Leeuwen explains that terminology needs to be exchanged upfront, and Netage developed a tool for doing so for the Dutch fire service. He calls this a ‘fire library’ and it is a set of authoritative fire department terms with an electronic dictionary that is employed to communicate the meaning of the terminology used in the data that is communicated between the fire department and the services they work with.

‘Using the fire library we are able to exchange terminology automatically when we talk about a crisis command issue or during a mass casualty incident. And everything is based on open platform technologies.’

Bringing all this together, Netage has developed a product called Resc.info Monitor. This product is completely based on open standards and aims to provide information to firefighters at the station in a manner that will allow them to assimilate the key facts of a situation quickly. Van Leeuwen explains that the release of only the most critical information at one time means that it can be processed better.

This differs from the current situation, which generally sees fire services deliver information to responders in a variety of formats both at the station and en route to an incident. In his NFPA keynote address, van Leeuwen used an image of the inside of a fire engine to show just how disconnected a firefighter’s sources of information can be – tablet computers, radios, mobile phones, even books. In the short time it takes to travel to an incident, it simply isn’t feasible that firefighters can read, collate and analyse information from all these sources, he argues. Resc.info Monitor acts as a ‘centre of information’ for all this data.

The system is device agnostic, meaning that it focusses on the information itself, rather than the mode of delivery. It consists of two components. The central server is at the heart of the system and is called the Resc.Info Base. The second component is the computer screen where the information is displayed, and this is called the Resc.Info Station.

‘Resc.info Base collects information from the system at the dispatch centre – the CAD system. The digital incident report provides the address, a code for the intended station or vehicle, the type of incident, comments about the location and a description of the incident itself.

Other information about the incident or the location can be collected from data sources outside the fire service. This type of information differs in each country, region, jurisdiction and even each dispatch centre. Resc.Info Station then collates all the information and transmits it via an open standard, after which it is displayed in a clear and concise way on the computer screens.

The standard maps on the interface are taken from Openstreetmap, but this can be adjusted to the user’s requirements. Most of the time information about specific locations is already present, says van Leeuwen, and the ability to view open standard data before the response means that it is easier for firefighters to prepare the right SOP to respond properly and safely to an incident.

 Resc.Info Monitor is now actively used in The Netherlands by Amsterdam/Amstelland Fire Service, Twente Fire Service, and three other fire and rescue services in Europe. The fire department in Bloomington, Indiana has also adopted the Netage solution.

‘When we deployed the system in Amsterdam, it really improved the locational awareness of firefighters,’ says van Leeuwen. ‘It all comes back to relying too heavily on mobile phones and satnav – people don’t know the streets anymore. The Resc.info Monitor helped firefighters regain an awareness of what their service area actually looks like.’

One unexpected effect was on driver behaviour, adds van Leeuwen. No longer reliant on satnav for directions, drivers began driving more calmly. ‘Not following satnav actually takes the surprise out of the driving experience – there are no sudden turns, for example. Drivers can come up with their own route to a location, and if something goes wrong they can use their initiative to come up with an alternative route.’

The additional preparation time the system provides – to develop the correct operating procedure or plan the route to an incident – is one of its major benefits. ‘Users are able to grasp the relevant information in the quiet time on the way to an incident and mentally prepare for what it coming,’ says van Leeuwen. ‘It is why they like the system – it gives them a good idea of what they are going into and what they will be facing when they get there.

‘Using this technology in a station-based environment prompted me to start really looking at my environment again, instead of just seeing it,' adds van Leeuwen. 'The problem with situational awareness is that it will start to fade, and people will once again begin to become preoccupied with what they think they see.’

Van Leeuwen believes that his system combats the preoccupation with what we think we know – thanks to our over-reliance on technology – and forces the user to take a deep breath, consider all the options, and then march into action in a more considered way.


  • Operation Florian

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