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Augmented Reality street view with sample risk data showing indicators for chemical hazards, explosives, dangerous animal, immobile householder and alarm.

How augmented reality can assist fire-and-rescue safety

Fire-and-rescue services need quick and easy access to intelligence about a location. Augmented-reality technology can play a part in this. It is intuitive, visual and aware of its surroundings, making it an ideal tool for staff on the ground to rapidly understand the status of buildings and locations around them, helping safeguard both public and staff.

The emergency services have been called to a burning building. One floor is occupied by a wheelchair user; an adjacent building contains oxygen cylinders. These two pieces of crucial information are known within the fire service, but will all the firefighters on the ground be aware of them?

Technology is constantly changing the way we manage spatial data. This is as true for fire-and-rescue services as for any other organisation. They deal with spatial data on a daily basis, ranging from buildings and locations to which an emergency call-out is required to when proactive management such as home fire-safety checks or fire-protection activities are carried out. Spatial boundaries such as floodplains are also important considerations when responding or planning.

The technical trend that has the biggest impact on the use of spatial data is the increasing use of mobile technology, especially apps on smartphones. Another emerging technology is the representation of spatial data in augmented reality. This article explores why and how these two technologies may be relevant to fire services.

The fire services hold a large amount of information about various locations, often obtained through fire-safety checks or during an emergency call-out. But fire crews will often only have access to limited information about the building they are sent to. Key intelligence tends to be restricted to departmental silos rather than shared more widely. For example, a commercial property could have been issued with an enforcement notice over stock restricting a fire exit or the presence of a combustible material, but the attending crew are unlikely to know about this or to think of requesting information from the relevant department. Yet it is often only the person on the ground who can judge what information is relevant.

Traditional 2D map showing sample risks.

Fire crews already have access to site-specific information via mobile data terminals (MDTs), but this is usually limited to what has been preconfigured. In many cases, crews could be more effective if every member had access to all relevant information. This could include recorded hazards, vulnerable residents, enforcement and prohibition notices and risk ratings for the buildings, or the fact that a building is in a flood zone.

The other issue crews face on the ground is the same as we all encounter when trying to get our bearings using digital maps. While these are incredibly powerful and useful, they can still be confusing, especially when we are under time pressure. We have to read and interpret the virtual map and then project that information on to our real-life surroundings. This is where augmented reality can help.

Augmented reality superimposes a computer-generated image on to a view of the user’s actual surroundings. It entered the wider public consciousness in 2016 with the Pokemon Go craze, and so far has mostly been used for marketing and gaming. But it is also the ideal medium for delivering on-site information to fire-and-rescue services.

A digital 2D map can show the spatial information a fire-crew member needs, but augmented reality can project that information on to the user’s actual surroundings. If information exists about a building, pointing the smartphone camera at it will reveal an augmented-reality image that represents the type of information held. As the user is viewing everything around the building in real-life, they can instantly gain an understanding of the implications on the surrounding area and buildings. They may be attending an incident at one building, but another augmented-reality image of a nearby building can show them that this has immobile occupants. They can also see an augmented-reality image representing a hazardous material in a neighbouring building. This insight gives them the opportunity to take any necessary action to safeguard lives.

Augmented Reality street view with sample risk data showing indicators for chemical hazards, explosives, dangerous animal and alarm.

Augmented Reality street view with sample risk data showing indicators for chemical hazards, explosives, dangerous animal and alarm.

The augmented-reality image is seen by the user in a direct line of sight, unhindered by buildings or other structures that lie between them and the location of interest. The size of the image is proportional to the distance from the user, giving an instant understanding of proximity. A user can also see what is actually between them and the location. Brick walls and other obstructions do not show up in traditional 2D maps but may have a significant impact on a course of action.

Because the augmented-reality image is computer generated, the user can interact with it. They can, for example, delve into more detail about the location and intelligence on it, or filter what the app shows so as to reduce clutter and focus on the pertinent details.

A smartphone app is an ideal way of delivering this information. Smartphones are portable, familiar to almost everyone and relatively inexpensive, particularly when compared with specialist kit such as an MDT. Smartphones can also be used for other purposes, increasing the return on investment. And using them means this technology can be made available to most, if not all, staff, so everyone who might need to access this information can do so. Apps can be configured to store data for a specific area locally and also retrieve information in real time via 3 or 4G. Initiatives such as the Emergency Service Network (ESN) should make real-time access even more prevalent across the UK.

Many of the largest technology companies, including Google, Apple and Microsoft, are also investing heavily in smart glasses. These devices are likely to become a significant means of viewing augmented reality, possibly replacing smartphones in the future. Smart glasses can be combined with gesture technology whereby software is controlled by hand movements rather than tapping on a screen, with obvious advantages to fire crews. This is no longer sci-fi – the technology already exists. There is even a helmet that projects augmented reality images on to the visor and can switch to an infrared view when, for example, smoke prevents normal vision.

The features of augmented reality described here may not revolutionise the way fire-and-rescue services operate, but they can offer an extra set of tools for crews to have at their disposal. And sometimes this might make all the difference to the safety of both the general public and fire-and-rescue staff.

For more information, go to www.aligned-assets.co.uk

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Dinesh Thanigasalam is commercial director for address management and augmented reality specialists Aligned Assets.