Information flow assists in major fire fighting operation

An unusually dry Spring led to one of the largest fires ever dealt with by Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service (RBFRS)….

The May 2011 Swinley Forest Fires affected some 300 hectares of forest owned and managed by the Forestry Commission and Crown Estates. On the Bank Holiday Monday of the fire, as well as the several hundred people in the forest, there were further considerations: a nearby high-security IT facility, Broadmoor Hospital in Crowthorne with its high-security patients, an electricity power station, overhead power cables, national gas network pipelines, fuel pipelines, and 13 terraced timber houses belonging to the Forestry Commission. 

The size and topography of the area added to the difficulty. The fire shifted and jumped all over the place and as a result, the schools in Crowthorne were evacuated as were the timber houses,

said Andy Mancey, RBFRS Area Manager (response).

RBFRS Deputy Chief Fire Officer, Olaf Baars said:

At the peak of the fire, there were 400 firefighters on the scene. It was vital that we kept the flow of information to all the agencies involved. We recorded 77,000 data entries made over the period.

“The size and topography of the area added to the difficulty. The fire shifted and jumped all over the place and as a result, the schools in Crowthorne were evacuated as were the timber houses,” said Andy Mancey, RBFRS Area Manager (response).

 The town’s water supply would not have been sufficient to tackle the fire, so a plan was rapidly put in place to draw water from the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, ten miles away.

Working with different agencies such as the Royal Military Academy meant that the normal communication methods used by the RBFRS crews would not provide the coverage required by an operation of this scale.

The RBFRS have been using the Airwave Service since 2009. “We use it in a very specific way, which works very well for us. We only make use of one talk group and no hailing groups. During the Swinley fires, we knew that we didn’t have enough repeaters and decided to replace our fire-to-ground radio channels – two and five – with an Airwave channel. This was partly due to the fact that we don’t have the protocol in place to monitor fire-to-ground radio channels,” said Deputy Chief Fire Officer, Olaf Baars.

A total of 13 fire brigades were involved in the incident and in most cases only the sector commander has access to Airwave, so the decision to switch everyone to the Airwave network was essential.

“At the peak of the fire, there were 400 firefighters on the scene. It was vital that we kept the flow of information to all the agencies involved. We recorded 77,000 data entries made over the period,” said Olaf.

“There’s no doubting the role Airwave played. The additional batteries and terminals supplied by Airwave on the day meant that we had the technology and hardware to do our job! There were also no reported coverage issues or blind spots.”

Command and Control were also able to widely disburse important information to all officers, such as tactical briefings and health and safety details.

Despite the magnitude of the fire, there were no deaths and only minor injuries. 45% of the forest was saved and no property was destroyed. “For any brigade, that makes the incident a success,” said Olaf.