Joining forces

University and the Greater Manchester Fire Service team up to address challenges.

University and fire service team up - Research - University of SalfordOverall, more than 20 potential projects are currently being assessed in what Paul Sharples, the Fire Service’s Head of Intelligence and Knowledge, describes as: “a ground-breaking, all encompassing partnership.” The Fire Service is the largest outside London, with over 2,500 employees and 41 fire stations, covering an area of nearly 500 square miles and a culturally diverse population of 2.5 million people.

“Our aim is to build this relationship into a strategic partnership, underpinned by our proven relationship management methodology,” explains Mike Taylor, a partnership consultant at the University.

“The secret is really understanding what they do and how they do it, what keeps them awake at night and what their strategic aims and business objectives are.

“Equally important is enabling the Fire Service to fully understand how the University’s funding mechanisms work, what we do in the laboratories and how this world-leading scientific expertise can help their organisation become more efficient and effective.”

Project control

Current projects include work with sports scientists from the University’s College of Health & Social Care, who have developed fitness programmes specifically for firefighters, as well as specialised rehabilitation and occupational health services.

Continuous professional development is another key element of the partnership. A new business within the University, Salford Professional Development, is creating bespoke courses which include management and leadership training, while the University’s Energy Hub team will be teaching firefighters how to use thermal imaging cameras.

“The technology was originally used to help us assess and measure the impact of insulation on properties, as part of the Green Deal,” says Taylor. “But we discovered that it can also be used by firefighters to help locate a fire’s hot-spot.”

The partnership is also developing a virtual reality ‘City’ at the University’s facilities at MediaCityUK as part of a Knowledge Transfer Partnership, which addresses another very real need, says Taylor. “The fire service is attending less and less house fire call outs due to the success of its prevention strategy, so training fire fighters is becoming increasingly difficult.”

What these projects show is how the University can apply the scientific research and ideas developed by our academics for use in one industry to something completely new, in this case helping the emergency services.

The project is designed to embed the use of mixed reality learning in the way in which both incident management and firefighting are taught. It also addresses the fact that future budgets require new and innovative ways of delivering training, which currently involve exercises with actual buildings and vehicles, which are both costly and resource heavy. What has particularly impressed Sharples is that: “the University is able to develop a virtual Greater Manchester, with exact 3D replica street layouts, buildings and even firefighters and engines. If we were to buy an off-the-shelf virtual reality system, it would be very expensive to tailor it to our exact needs.

“So what we’re getting is a system that’s fit for purpose, embedded within the organisation and, from the public’s perspective, is good value for money.”

The organisations are also looking at a possible link up around robotics and artificial intelligence, with the University working on a drone which could be used to give firefighters an aerial view and thermal images of an incident. They are also developing an autonomous robot called a 'Husky', which is capable of independently entering and assessing the inside of a building, before sending live 3D thermal images back to officers to help improve decision making. The University is assisting with environmental management too, helping the fire service to manage issues such as water use, urban diffuse pollution and the effect on the watercourse of the chemical-based foam often used to fight fires.

Innovative thinking

The sheer breadth of the partnership is shown by one last initiative, involving the University’s Salford Housing and Urban Studies Unit, which is carrying out culture and community mapping for the fire service.

“We’re aware that certain communities across Greater Manchester have traditional cultural issues which could make them more vulnerable to the dangers of fire,” says Sharples. “By finding out exactly where these communities are, we can develop a more targeted campaign of prevention.” And Taylor adds: “What these projects show is how the University can apply the scientific research and ideas developed by our academics for use in one industry to something completely new, in this case helping the emergency services.”

Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Enterprise, Dr Nigel Mellors, said: "We are establishing a system where we approach a business as a complete university, rather than one department offering one service."