Communications, Communications, Equipment, Technology

New Solution Redefines Firefighter Accountability Process

Issue 1 and Volume 18.

Mike Petersen

The moment a fire department receives an emergency call, an enormous amount of information is recorded, retrieved, sorted, combined, and relayed verbally to the incident commander (IC) as he travels to the scene. It can be an overwhelming process. But, all of this information is vital to an IC to build situational awareness that can mean lives saved, property protected, and affected area contained.

The challenge facing every IC is to ensure that this information is accurate and delivered in a timely manner. If it isn’t, it can create confusion on the fireground. Most importantly, an IC must know the location of the firefighters and other personnel working at the incident. Do they have the support and equipment they need to do their jobs? Is everyone connected to the communications network? Is everyone accounted for? Can we evacuate everyone quickly if the incident changes dramatically?

ICs periodically perform roll calls and personnel accountability report (PAR) checks during an incident to be sure everyone working an incident is safe. Yet, the traditional means of conducting them, coupled with unexpected factors always encountered at an incident, can make the process complicated and time-consuming.

Today, there is a new approach expected to increase the accuracy and speed of every PAR check.

(1) With Motorola Solutions’ APX Personnel Accountability Solution, an IC knows the status of firefighters and other personnel working an incident in real time. (Photos courtesy of Motorola Solutions.)

Hardware, Software Drive New Solution

Motorola Solutions recently introduced an accountability solution-the APX Personnel Accountability Solution-that streamlines much of the roll-call and PAR process. The solution is available on the company’s APX™ family of Project 25 (P25) compatible portable radios-models 7000, 6000-and their extreme (XE) series models.

To use the system, an IC requests a PAR on his mobile terminal. All a firefighter must do to acknowledge the request is press the transmit button on his radio. This solution notifies the IC right on his mobile terminal screen that the firefighter is accounted for.

When activated, the solution gathers radio information without requiring any further interaction with the IC or firefighter. This means the IC is free to focus on other urgent needs at the scene.

Hardware Creates Solution Path

Motorola Solutions’ APX family of P25 portable radios is the communications backbone that makes the new accountability solution possible. First introduced in 2008, APX radios offer new functionality and features to perform in the intense environments first responders encounter every day. These radios also are designed to function as the communications hub at any incident scene.

Technologically, the radios use sensory features-touch, visual, and audio-to make them easy to use and transform them into an integral part of a firefighter’s protective ensemble. A T-grip design makes the radios easier to hold in a user’s hand. The radios feature intelligent lighting for visual cues. Green, amber, and red backlighting indicates whether a page is received, the battery is low, or the user triggers an emergency. Volume level has been increased 50 percent over previous radios with improved audio quality. The units’ dual-microphone configuration can detect where a user’s voice and background noise are coming from. Firefighters can now transmit no matter which side of the radio faces them when they pick it up.

The radio also features an automatic man-down alert. An onboard accelerometer monitors movement and orientation. If a firefighter is motionless in a horizontal position beyond a predetermined time, the radio can automatically transmit an emergency alert to the IC, the dispatcher, and other units on scene.

In 2010, Motorola Solutions extended the APX family to include the XE radio series. These took the initial APX features firefighters valued most and enhanced them further. For example, the control top on these radios is twice as large as others in the APX family. Larger volume and channel knobs allow a user with a gloved hand to manipulate radio settings. A new extreme audio profile also was created to cancel out noises typically encountered on the fireground such as personal alert safety systems (PASS), ventilation fans, chainsaws, and noise at the pump panel.

APX radios were also designed to accommodate future software-driven capabilities no matter what they may be.

(2) Motorola Solutions’ APX Personnel Accountability Solution means firefighters can respond to a PAR request simply by pressing the radio transmit button.

Software Delivers New Data Capability

With a robust communications platform in place, Motorola Solutions turned to its partner, Systems Definition, Inc. (SDI), to collaborate in the development of software that would transform the accountability process. This joint effort produced a specialized application that works seamlessly within the APX operating environment and over the same voice communications network a department uses at an incident scene.

It is software specifically built for this purpose. It was built from the ground up vs. software that has been modified from any other principal use. It leverages SDI’s expertise in developing task-specific software for fire service use.

It performs its data gathering without the need for any interaction with the IC during the process. This is a considerable plus as the IC manages incident scene. Additionally, the application does not consume many communications resources. This means the IC does not have to worry about whether the network resources required for other vital tasks will be available.

All data gathered is processed, organized, and relayed to the IC’s laptop or mobile terminal. It is displayed in a graphical user interface (GUI) created specifically for the fire service. It features ample use of color and lighting to direct the IC’s attention to vital, time-sensitive information. All data are presented in an easy-to-understand format to further facilitate quick decision making.

Confident Decision Making

The new accountability system offers features that ICs worldwide have long said they need. Field tests have proven that the communications solution delivers vital information with speed, accuracy, and reliability.

Motorola believes the APX radio family and the new APX Personnel Accountability Solution successfully help the fire service address two fundamental goals. The first is to continually apply the latest communications technologies in innovative ways to keep firefighters and other personnel working an incident scene safe. The second is to create a communications platform that has the capability and capacity to support sophisticated future communications innovations, some of which may eventually include capturing physiological data.

Enhancing situational awareness is an ongoing process. Communications system providers always look for new technologies that can be applied to more quickly capture vital information, organize it, then present it in more usable forms for the IC working an incident scene. The end result is more confident decision making, better outcomes, and lives protected and saved.

MIKE PETERSEN is director of ASTRO Subscriber Product Management for Motorola Solutions, Inc. He works from the corporation’s Latin America and Caribbean Region headquarters in Plantation, Florida.


When to Transition

Making the move to the new capability is likely less a matter of if and more a matter of when. Below are some of the factors that are important for a department to consider.

Need and expectations-Does your current accountability method meet them? The APX Personnel Accountability Solution delivers comprehensive accountability reports quickly and displays them in a GUI specifically developed for fire service applications. This means better incident control and more confident decision making.

Cycle time-How long does a typical roll call and PAR check report take today? Is that acceptable? The new accountability solution dramtically reduces cycle time to a matter of minutes.

Accuracy-Is the information your current approach generates reliable? The speed of the new solution means ICs retrieve information in real time.

Incident management-Does your department respond to complex incidents that often involve multiple departments or agencies? The APX Personnel Accountability Solution has the capacity to deliver real-time accountability regardless of the number of personnel working the incident scene.

Simplicity-How easy to use is your current roll call and PAR process for everyone involved? All a department needs to do to put the new accountability system to work is to preload the radio identification numbers of everyone it wants to account for. Once the system is loaded and launched, the hardware and software do all the work. It requires no personnel training or additional personnel to operate.