Digital transformation in the public sector is not just about eliminating paperwork or making efficiency gains in services. In vital sectors like emergency services, new solutions, connectivity and collaboration capabilities are having a direct impact on public safety and saving lives.
Colonel Expert Ali Hassan Almutawa, Assistant General Manager of Smart Services, General Department of Dubai Civil Defence (DCD) discussed how DCD has become a leader in technology adoption and developing new solutions to protect the people of Dubai.
DCD’s transformation began in 2008, Almutawa explained, when His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President, Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, set new budgets and instructed DCD to discover and adopt best practices and new technologies from around the world. The investment came with the condition however, that DCD should become a world leader in turn.
“We were allowed to take benchmarks, but after five years, by 2013, we had to become a benchmark for the rest of our field,” said Almutawa.
The drive to develop best practices and find new technology can be seen across all areas of DCD operations. DCD works in three main areas when addressing incidents. For instance, with fires, the process is – discover the fire, respond to it, and deal with it in an efficient way.
Discovering a fire is not always as straightforward as it may seem, particularly in cases such as empty buildings, commercial premises outside business hours and so on, which has led to a major push to develop smart solutions for fire detection.
The need for better connected, automated fire detection and alarm systems had already been highlighted in 2005, when a mall on Sheikh Zayed Road, the Oasis Centre, burned down. The mall’s fire alarms had been disconnected due to building work, and despite the nearest fire station being only minutes away, by the time fire crews were alerted and reached the scene, the mall was practically gutted, with damages estimated at AED 300m.
The situation led to DCD investigating options for what was to become one of the most extensive and significant smart city projects in the region to date.
“We brainstormed how can we guarantee that all the fire systems, which are implemented by law, are in good working condition. We want casualties to be zero, and we want to prevent fires, because a big fire can have an impact on the economy of the city,” Almutawa said.
DCD wanted a system that would not only deliver more sophisticated alarms, but also provide alerts if the systems were not working, and which could be used to collect other relevant data. The initial studies didn’t find dedicated fire safety systems that met the criteria, but a smart home automation panel did, so DCD decided to modify this system to convert them into Alarm Transmission Equipment (ATE), which can monitor buildings, report incidents, and which DCD can also test remotely to check they are working properly.
The first phase of the project connected 60,000 buildings across Dubai, mainly commercial and public buildings and apartment blocks. Today, more than 100,000 ATEs are connected across 67,000 buildings, and the project has also been expanded by the Ministry of Interior for the whole of the UAE. The project will also be rolled out to individual homes in future, Almutawa said.
In larger buildings, and newer buildings that have modern Building Management Systems (BMS), the system is able to integrate data from the ATEs and BMS to monitor different systems such as elevators, escalator, electrical systems, fire pumps, mechanical systems and ventilation. This allows DCD to spot any issues in multiple systems, which can mean either an emergency response, or a notice to the building owners to check a system and rectify it.
The data is monitored in a central command and control centre, Almutawa explained, and if there is an incident, the data held by DCD means there is no need for an individual onsite to report a fire, it will be detected automatically, and the response teams are automatically provided with data such as maps and building plans, information on critical issues such as if there are particular hazards at a site, or requirements such as residents who may need assistance.
The data taken from the sensors not only provides DCD with the oversight needed for safety, but also provides data that can be shared with building managers and city authorities for analysis and planning. The software for the ATEs was developed in-house by DCD, so that it could create customised dashboards for the data taken from the sensors, and each stakeholder can receive the data they need.
For many parts of the project, DCD worked extensively with private-sector partners including Avaya and Etisalat.
The ATE hardware was sourced from a partner to ensure that it would meet the environmental operating requirements of the UAE, such as dust and humidity. M2M SIM cards are provisioned from Etisalat, and the telco also provides maintenance for the system.
Another important aspect of private-sector involvement was that the project was developed on a Build-Operate-Transfer basis, so that the high cost of connecting so many facilities would be carried by the private sector to begin with.
Advanced communications are also playing a central role in how DCD tackles other aspects of emergency response. The DCD had already switched to Avaya IP telephony in 2008, to cut costs of connecting its fire stations and to improve the speed and quality of its call handling for both emergency and non-emergency calls.
DCD uses an Avaya automated emergency notification system (ANS), which was originally developed for universities in the US to contact large numbers of students simultaneously, in the event of an on-campus emergency.
“We are the first entity in the region to have an ANS,” said Almutawa. “We have customised it to our needs - we can’t notify thousands of people by dialling them up, so we can use this to call thousands of people automatically if we need to.”
Technology is also having a major impact on the most important part of DCD work, the on-the-ground emergency response. DCD is deploying a number of different solutions to help it to be more efficient and effective in how it deals with fires and other incidents.
One of the key systems is the provision of live streaming video to and from incident sites, so that firefighters have the best information on the situation they are getting into, and command have real time reporting on the situation as it unfolds.
DCD was the first customer for Avaya’s Equinox system, a software-based solution for unified communications and collaboration, which enables live video streaming and other communications between various teams.
One element of this information flow is providing data to the firefighting teams. These teams are equipped with ruggedized tablets, which begin providing data to them before they even leave the station.
“The more information I can get about the fire I am responding to, the better I can deal with the fire. We are enabling the fire commander by giving him that data – routing information to the building, floorplans, engineering reports, the building occupancy, contact numbers of the people responsible for fire systems, the critical risks if there is a gas system in the building, and the standard operating procedures for each type of building – the risks are different for each building,” Almutawa said.
The data also flows the other way, with firefighters able to communicate with the command and control infrastructure with video. First responder units are equipped with a range of cameras, including thermal imaging cameras, and these can provide a first-person view of the situation.
Another new firefighting tool is DCD’s drone fleet. DCD is operating three different types of drone, all of which can be deployed quickly at an incident. There are drones for use at high level for tall buildings, and drones with thermal image cameras.
Data is streamed backed to the command and control room, which is supported with its own data centre, and the flexibility of the system means that data and video can be shared with incident rooms on the ground, and with different levels of command as required.
“We are able to connect the live video cameras from the drones, and stream it right away to the officers in the operation room, so they can make assessments and decisions more easily,” Almutawa added.
Video and collaboration systems are also being deployed by DCD for other roles. One such role is enabling communications between the DCD team of inspection engineers and with construction companies, architects and so on. Every building has to have approval when it is built, and an annual renewal, creating a lot of demand on the engineer team, so DCD has developed a service called E-Engineering, also based on Avaya Equinox, that enables video meetings between the different parties, as well as online submission of documents and plans, reviews and comments on those plans. Further automation of the process is enabling plans that are compliant to get instant approval.
As the technology develops, DCD is looking for new ways that is can be deployed. In future, DCD is looking at how it can utilise the big data it is collecting, Almutawa explained, and improving the systems for firefighters.
“When I joined DCD in 1996, we didn’t have the resources to think about technology — now we have the resources, so we’re focusing on firefighters, and more efficient ways to deal with fires.”
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