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Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service goes digital thanks to Microsoft platforms

07 December 2020

ONE OF the largest Fire and Rescue Services in the UK – namely the Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service – is going digital by using Microsoft Surface, Microsoft 365 and Microsoft Teams to help it respond to emergencies and also actively train new recruits to the ranks.

Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service is, in fact, the largest Fire and Rescue Service in England and Wales, employing over 1,300 members of staff and covering about 12,0002 kilometres. That’s almost two-thirds of Wales.

The Fire and Rescue Service embarked on a digital transformation journey several years ago with the goal of better protecting its firefighters and, by extension, the communities they serve.

Officers are being given Surface Go devices to use such that they can view information about specific vehicles as they’re travelling to road traffic collisions. This means that, when they arrive at the scene of an incident, they can tell firefighters the best places to cut vehicles to free trapped passengers and how to disable airbags that haven’t been deployed so as to avoid injury. They’re also able to see live information about the incident, which can then be shared instantly with colleagues.

Microsoft’s technology will be used alongside the Mobile Data Terminals found in all fire appliances, which allow firefighters to stay in contact with their Control Centre, but cannot be removed from the vehicle.

Genuine transformation

Chris Davies QFSM, chief fire officer at the Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service, observed: “By using Surface Go, our officers can now see all of the safety features of any vehicle involved in an accident, wherever they are. This gives firefighters more information about the situation as they safely extricate casualties.”

He added: “The use of real-time data and Power BI has transformed what we do. Whether that’s information from an emergency or a live feed from a drone searching for someone injured on a mountain, this detail allows our staff to understand situations in more depth. Technology is also helping us with more straightforward activities. For instance, we use Microsoft Teams to hold training sessions for firefighters across Wales.”

With upwards of 1,300 staff employed in 58 fire stations across Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, Neath Port Talbot, Pembrokeshire, Powys and Swansea, arranging for everyone to be in the same place and at the same time for training is difficult. With few motorways in Wales, firefighters can spend up to six hours travelling to a training session that lasts for an hour or two. Davies has found Microsoft Teams to be a far more efficient – and safer – solution.

“I’ve been encouraging more staff to conduct remote meetings as we don’t need to ask all the officers to travel to headquarters, for example,” he explained. “We can run meetings on Teams and it’s far more effective. People are much more engaged. There’s also less risk posed to our staff when they’re on the road because they haven’t had to leave very early to travel somewhere. It’s simple uses of technology like this which are really changing how our Fire and Rescue Service operates to meet the needs of today’s world.”

Life-sized holograms

Davies, who took over as chief fire officer six years ago, is now looking to build on the success his organisation has enjoyed with Teams and Surface. He now wants to use Microsoft HoloLens to create life-sized holograms of some of the buildings in mid-Wales and west-Wales, which firefighters can look at and interact with during training at their station or on the way to an emergency. This will allow them to understand potential risks, identify safe routes through buildings and learn the location of hydrants and sprinklers. Currently, firefighters look at single line drawings of buildings on a computer screen.

HoloLens could also be used to train officers in how to respond to emergencies at Wales’ oil refineries. “We have a number of oil refineries in the area, and historically we’ve always trained on those sites,” stated Davies. “What HoloLens will enable us to do is actually put incident commanders into those scenarios in an almost live experience, but also in a safe environment. I firmly believe this is going to change the way in which we train and maintain the competencies of our firefighters. My vision of what’s possible has been completely blown away by Microsoft.”

It is the latest example of how Microsoft is helping public sector organisations to use technology in order to improve how their employees work. Last year, Wales became one of the first countries in the world to give schools free access to Microsoft 365. The Welsh Government paid for all 1,521 ‘maintained’ schools to have access to programs such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint in a bid to boost the use of technology among pupils and reduce costs for families and headteachers.

Meanwhile, an agreement struck between NHSX, NHS Digital and Microsoft back in June will save the NHS hundreds of millions of pounds and enable all eligible organisations in England to access Microsoft 365 digital tools.

Evolving and adapting

Craig Flannery, head of resources at the Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service, told Fire Safety Matters: “The way in which people build houses has changed. It follows that we have to evolve and adapt to that. There’s a lot of national disaster issues to think about in tandem. Extreme weather events such as floods and storms, and safety issues such as those involving high-rise buildings, are all impacting the sector.”

The Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service invests significantly in prevention and education programmes to make the region a safe place in which to live, work and visit. Although the Fire and Rescue Service is about emergency response, its communities are also very important. “We have been able to stay connected throughout COVID,” outlined Teri-Ann Parry, commercial training manager at the Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service. “We work with vulnerable people and we were able to keep that connection with them. This has helped the Fire and Rescue Service to ensure that affected communities haven’t felt isolated.”

Chris Perkins, general manager for the public sector at Microsoft UK, said: “There has never been a more important time for companies and organisations to use technology that helps staff collaborate, communicate and gain insight into the world around them. This is even more critical when those people are employed by our vital public services, which work tirelessly to keep us all safe and well. The Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service is adopting technology at scale, in turn allowing firefighters and officers to create a network of information that can be shared and acted upon. It’s a fantastic example of how placing cutting-edge technology in the hands of skilled people can lead to genuinely ground-breaking solutions.”