Surrey Fire and Rescue Service’s new state-of-the-art ICU delivers outstanding multi-agency performance

Primetech provides High Definition incident ground video and next generation Ka satcoms. 


Primetech’s advanced communications technologies (including High Definition incident ground video imagery, a fire sector first) have been integrated into a spacious new cutting edge Incident Command Unit (ICU) for Surrey Fire and Rescue Service (FRS), which proved itself highly capable in the winter floods.

When Surrey Fire and Rescue Service’s new ICU vehicle was deployed to provide communications support for the service’s wide-area, multi-agency flood rescue operations along its sector of the flooded river Thames in early 2014, the benefits of the service’s communications planning were apparent for all to see.  Under very difficult conditions, the service was able to deliver very high levels of satellite broadband command communications, both for itself and for all local emergency services. 

This was as a result of in-depth strategic incident command planning by Surrey FRS, combined with the support of mobile satellite broadband supplier Primetech. Using Primetech’s Ka-band systems, the service was able to provide high levels of mobile satellite broadband capacity for emergency command teams from all local emergency services and agencies.

"The Surrey FRS unit is able to collect and transmit High Definition video imagery from around an incident ground."

But mobile satellite broadband, using the new Ka-band frequency (which delivers higher data capacity than the older Ku-band system) is not the only distinguishing feature of the Surrey ICU. The unit is also able to collect and transmit High Definition video imagery from around an incident ground, from body-worn and aerial cameras, a major breakthrough in command communications.


The Ku band was also looked at for satellite communications but it was thought that there might be capacity issues. In particular, there were concerns about situations such as the London bombings, when the internet was overloaded, and if under similar conditions the service would lose capability. At that time the Ka-band system was being developed, so the Surrey ICU team did a lot of work with Primetech to determine where the Ka-band system was going supported by in-depth testing. It was found that, even in the early days, the Ka-band receivers were working very well in Surrey and around the borders of Surrey.

The service looked at the long-term benefits of the Ka-band, bearing in mind that it was buying a vehicle that needed to be ‘future proofed’. Surrey was originally going to have one Ka-band receiver on its main vehicle and a Ku-band receiver on the Forward Command Vehicle, but by the time the service was due to go live it asked Primetech to swap out the Ku receiver and put a Ka one in instead. Staff are delighted that they did so, because this vehicle has cameras as well, and with Ka it now has extra capability to use High Definition video. Henry Walker at Primetech will praised for helping Surrey to find solutions, for going the extra mile to help out. Surrey took delivery of the vehicle in January 2013.

Working with multi-agencies was a key part of the planning for the ICU. There was a definitive user requirement stating what was required in terms of inter-agency liaison: being able to have access to the media, for conferencing, briefing crews, holding silver command meetings, and collecting information.  All this went into the service’s specification, as it is now doing more ‘blue light’ preparation than at any other time, working closely with the police, the ambulance service and the local authority on interoperability. The project team worked with other agencies in defining the specification, and they are continuing to work with other agencies now.

The service is anticipating that the use of High Definition video at incidents will have a major beneficial impact. It is also in the market for two new aerial appliances, and part of that requirement will be for HD cameras. These aerial appliance-mounted HD cameras will allow commanders to access superb overhead video imagery in the command vehicle, for monitoring wild fires, other major fires and flooding incidents.

"It was found that, even in the early days, the Ka-band receivers were working very well in Surrey and around the borders of Surrey."

Part of the rationale for specifying Ka-band has been not just to see benefits in the short term but also to see benefits in the medium term. The vision is that senior strategists and commanders will be able to sit in Gold command and monitor images in high definition back from the incident area, to allow them to support decision-making. The service has laid firm foundations by investing in these new technologies.

Surrey has one helmet-mounted camera for beaming imagery back to the ICU. That was partly so managers could see what could be achieved.  It is currently looking towards the possibility of more widespread use of helmet-mounted cameras in the future, and the possibility of imagery being viewed more widely throughout the County Council, using web-based technology. It is considered to be work in progress at the moment but early signs are exciting. 

Regarding incident ground wifi, the vehicle already establishes a wifi network, covering an area of up to 500 metres, depending on ground conditions and other buildings. Incident ground wifi is another area that Surrey wants to enhance, and Primetech has now developed a Peli-case mounted portable wifi unit using COFDM communications technology. 

One of the reasons Surrey chose Primetech for its ICU communications was the research and development capability and expertise the company provided. The company has been working with Surrey FRS to develop and improve systems, and support its requirements. Surrey wants to enhance the spread of its wireless network, and is already looking at a project to use tablet-style computers for sector commanders and other officers around the incident ground.

When the team was defining how it wanted the ICU and its associated shelter configured they decided that they needed three distinct areas: an area where skilled operators could work, working with IT, broadband, wifi, radios etc; they wanted an area where senior commanders could meet and make plans, again with IT support; and they wanted another area where they could hold meetings and conduct briefings for crews. The shelter is quite unique, because it creates a number of work spaces around the vehicle, tripling it in size.

"The service is anticipating that the use of High Definition video at incidents will have a major beneficial impact."

The ICU has CCTV on board, so it can record all the actions and messaging for post-incident reviews, learning and health and safety. The ICU continues to evolve, however; development is not fixed, it is a work in progress.

Concerning staffing and training, the ICU has specialist operators on board but Surrey also currently has trained firefighters who understand and can use the functionality of the vehicle, and Surrey has held a series of exercises to consolidate this.

Rory Coulter is head of logistics at Surrey FRS, in charge of all of the service’s vehicles, IT and buildings.

‘Three bronze commands were running for the February flooding, at Sunbury, Walton and Chertsey. It was decided that Chertsey would be the incident joint forward tactical operating base, acting as the joint tactical focus and forward logistical interface and be the lead of the three stations for the flooding, and that the ICU would be based there.

‘Initially the ICU was set up at the front of the station for bronze command. It was later decided to move the command team into the building, but still to use the facilities that the vehicle could provide, using the satellite to give them a better network. So a far better link into the command structure was established using the vehicle rather than by using the station alone. It was deployed for around two weeks, for the worst of the flooding being around the weekend of Valentine’s Day, the week before and the week after. 

‘Ka-band gave us a much better broadband capacity than we could achieve within the station. But it wasn’t only us using the station, it was all the other agencies - the police, the HART teams, the local authority, plus volunteers.  The station became the hub of everything for our area of the river Thames. New Dimensions national resilience coordination also had its own control set up at Service HQ at Reigate, liaising with Chertsey.

‘Staffing was with teams 24 hours a day. We wouldn’t have been able to provide the level of information transfer which they achieved without the Ka-band communications systems of the ICU vehicle. Following the wind-down we will now be undertaking a post-incident review.’

Commenting on Surrey FRS’s use of Primetech’s Ka-band mobile satellite broadband systems and high definition video imagery, Henry Walker of Primetech said:

‘We are delighted we have been able to support Surrey FRS during this highly stressful and difficult period.

‘In the mobile satellite communications arena Ka-band is the newer emerging technology and we are now supplying this technology to Sky News, who are using it to transmit HD news video in the broadcast field. A key feature of Primetech’s approach to its markets is the introduction of cutting edge emergency management technologies and communications solutions which deliver real benefits for fire, police and ambulance services, backed up by exceptional customer service.

‘The new ICU supplied to Surrey FRS incorporates video recording equipment enabling the unit to send full High Definition video from the command vehicle back into the command headquarters over the Ka satellite system. Two areas have come together here. We have used our expertise from the Sky arena, delivering daily high quality video technology from their vehicles to the broadcast studios, and taken that technology and implanted it into the HQ and ICU, so the emergency services are now able to do the same thing as TV broadcasters. 

‘We have brought the two industries together, allowing the emergency services to have the same high quality video as broadcast TV. Before we had the incredibly large bandwidth capability of Ka we couldn’t do this.

‘Other technology on the Surrey FRS vehicle includes COFDM cameras. Body-worn cameras send imagery via COFDM to both the main vehicle and a support vehicle. These also both have wifi technology delivering capability onto the incident ground for tablet PCs and ruggedised laptops. 

 ‘The benefits of wifi- which can be limited because it is a very congested network - can be spread across incident grounds using Primetech’s own incident ground solution - a COFDM drop-down unit housed in a small, battery-powered Peli case unit. This is a COFDM/MESH node that can be taken away from the command vehicle and positioned so that it can create a link from the box back to the command unit.’



Additional Information - Surrey FRS case study