In September 2005, NOW Wireless was asked by Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service to provide a reliable fireground wireless communications solution at the scene of major incidents. After thorough testing of the Mesh4G™ system (based on military-grade secure technology), instant data transfer from command support team back to the incident command unit was shown to be reliable even with interference from smoke, fire and water. “This trial confirms that the Mesh4G communications system answers our problems of getting good, reliable data to and from the fire ground,” says Paul Turner, Senior Communications Engineer for Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service. The improved accuracy and immediacy of visual data brought by this new technology has the potential to improve the efficiency of the fire service nationally.

Background

The ICU (Incident Command Unit) obtains and holds all information essential to the operations of Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service, this includes maps, CAD plans, Hazchem and other relevant information required to help support the incident. Until now the ICU used to deliver information to the fire fighters by using a command support “runner”, who manually delivers printed documents to and from the ICU with up-to-date information. The inefficiency of this method prompted engineers to seek a real-time data communications solution.

The Mesh4G™ solution proposed by NOW Wireless allows fire officers to continuously monitor events with data, images and voice communications at incidents, leading to safer and more effective fire fighting.

Mesh4G™ Technology

The key benefits of Mesh4G™ to the fire service are:

  • Speed and ease of deployment with little or no manual intervention in extreme conditions
  • Ad hoc peer-to-peer networking
  • Ability to monitor events with continual data transmission including images and voice
  • Ability to monitor people
  • Ability to collect data for later analysis

Mesh4G™ incorporates a secure, military-grade wireless meshing system, developed by the US with over $350 million of funding. Mesh4G™ has developed a self-forming, self-healing technology that automatically creates a wireless broadband network at an incident. No existing network infrastructure is needed. The Mesh4G™ network can also offer built-in position location capabilities that do not rely on GPS satellites, although this facility is not being taken up by Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service at present. This means that personnel can be instantly located, even inside multi-storey buildings. Since it is also well suited for wide area networks, it provides an ideal replacement for CDPD and other cellular based data networks.

The Trial

The trial took place at the Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service headquarters in Eastleigh. Mesh4G™ cards (PCMCIA) were installed on four hand-held industrial tablets carried by test personnel. A Mesh4G™ Access Point (IAP) was installed inside the ICU vehicle which had a wired connection to an outdoor plasma screen displaying data such as maps. A Mesh4G™ Node (VMM) was installed on a Fire Appliance and another on a Command Support Vehicle (see diagram of trial set-up).

 

Several different communication and interference tests were carried out on the Mesh4G™ network:

 

Distance Test

Communications between the ICU and the command support personnel was tested. The ICU produced data (in this test a map) that was displayed on the outdoor plasma screen and communicated wirelessly to the handheld tablets for ground personnel to view. The test was conducted at various distances up to 500 metres apart. Fire personnel marked their positions on the map using the tablets and the information was accurately transmitted back to the ICU.

 

Hopping Test

Command support personnel using hand-held tablets were spread out so that only one tablet was within 500 metres of the access point in the ICU. When the tablets were within 500 metres of each other, real time data was able to hop between them producing a self-forming network. The tablet furthest away from the ICU received data in real time even after several hops.

 

Non-Line-of-Sight Test

Communications between devices that do not have a direct line-of-sight to each other were tested. Command support personnel using handheld tablets were surrounded by fire engines. They could not see the ICU (with the IAP) or the Command Support Vehicle or Fire Appliance (with the VMMs) but they could still communicate with the ICU. Mesh4G™ operates at 2.4GHz at street-level, a frequency at which transmissions can be conducted through vehicles, walls, buildings and other objects.

 

Environmental and Interference Tests

Mesh4G™ was tested in the extreme conditions experienced by the fire service, including how fire, smoke and water would affect communications. Water jets were set up between the command support personnel holding the tablets and the ICU vehicle. Communications between them were unaffected.

In addition, the effects of fire and smoke were tested on the quality of transmissions. On the training ground, the ICU was positioned on one side of a burning building and the command support personnel stood on the other side, so there was a wall of fire and smoke between the devices. Again, communications between the ICU and the tablets were unaffected.

 

Conclusion

Mesh4G™ technology was originally developed by the US military to provide reliable communications in extreme environments and the trials at Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service have shown that Mesh4G™ is ideal for use in the unique environmental conditions experienced by fire services. Communications were shown to be unaffected by various types of interference including smoke, water, fire, obstructions and buildings.

If required, there is also the possibility of connecting the ICU back to headquarters, or other remote locations, using either satellite, 5GHz or Mesh4G™ backhaul, or even connecting to an existing city-wide Mesh4G™ network.

Officers managing fire incidents in the future will be able to monitor complex events as they unfold in real time, through voice, images and data. Resources will be directed more efficiently and exactly where they are needed, improving safety and effectiveness.