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Setting the gold standard for lone worker safety
Published:  20 August, 2014

An increase in the use of lone workers by Dorset FRS in the UK drove the service to assess associated risks and examine technology that could reduce those risks. Jose Sanchez de Muniain spent a day with hydrant technicians and home safety advisors seeing at first hand why a solution was necessary.

Dorset FRS HQ sits on the outskirts of Poundbury, a new town built on Duchy of Cornwall land in line with the urban construction values and principles of Prince Charles.

Sitting with me in the modern, cool and airy offices of the purpose-built HQ are Water/Foam Officer Ian Crabb (left), Hydrant Technician Steve Foot (right), and Area Sales Officer for PageOne Nick Smith.

Ian Crabb looks after Dorset FRS’s team of hydrant technicians, consisting of two civilians whose responsibilities include the inspection, maintenance and repair of 14,000 hydrants in the county of Dorset.

Hydrant technicians are not uncommon in the Fire Service today, explains Ian, partly as the result of the introduction of the New Roads & Street Works Act 1991, which stipulates that workers on the road have to be adequately trained in associated safety measures, for example in the correct installation and positioning of traffic signs and lighting. ‘Previously hydrant inspection was carried out by firefighters on an appliance. With the introduction of the Act we couldn’t afford to put all our firefighters through the relevant course, plus we didn’t have the required orange flashing lights on the fire engines – we tend to carry blue – so we fell at the first hurdle.’

Two years ago Ian was tasked with carrying out a risk assessment for lone workers, with a particular focus on hydrant technicians and home safety advisors. Ian himself had experience of the possible dangers involved with carrying out lone hydrant inspections. He was once verbally assaulted by a man who’d confused Ian’s van with a speeding camera van. The assault continued as Ian locked himself in, culminated with his van being punched, and only didn’t escalate further because Ian had no choice but to drive off. ‘The man was blaming me for the loss of his driving licence, and consequently his job and marriage.’

Hydrants are sometimes used illegally by unscrupulous contractors to steal water that is used to fill the water tanks of cleaning equipment and vehicles. ‘We will challenge them to ask if they have a licence, and that conversation could be confrontational. We have also seen hydrants being used illegally in building sites.’

The more common risks, however, are those associated with working by the side of the road, for instance being knocked over by cars.

‘Previous lone worker procedures for Dorset FRS consisted of calling Fire Control in the morning, reporting where you’d be going, and then calling again at the end of the day to say you’d finished. If they didn’t hear from you they would ring you, but inevitably there would be a large fire somewhere and they’d forget to call. It didn’t work really, and of course in some areas there wouldn’t be any signal,' explained Ian.

To find out the procedures in other brigades around the country, Ian sent out a nationwide Find Alert. Ian’s Alert in particular asked how brigades tackled the risk of a lone worker becoming unconscious as a result of an accident.

The 12 replies he received ranged from brigades providing nothing and relying on personal mobiles, to workers using radios or laptops on their vehicles, or even going to their nearest station for assistance. One brigade did have pagers with an alarm, but only one was in use because they’d proved a ‘nuisance that kept going off’. There was no solution addressing the issue of a worker becoming unconscious.

Pager alerts

Further research revealed a pager that could send out an alert, but this technology was based on a manual timer system, requiring the user to first set a timer (eg 10 minutes), and then pressing a button at the end of that time to prevent a distress message being sent. This method proved impractical on several levels, not least of which was that if the worker had been knocked down within the first 2 minutes of the timer’s countdown, it would take a further 8 minutes for the distress message to be sent out.

As part of the fact-finding process, Dorset FRS Operational Comms Manager Ian Locock suggested Ian Crabb try out the Trio solution from PageOne, a pager with a motion sensor and distress signal messaging service. This is the solution that has since been adopted.

Hydrant technician Steve Foot proceeded to demonstrate how the Trio worked in practice.

Steve presses the button and immediately the Trio begins beeping. As he continues pressing the button, the beeping becomes gradually louder, becoming a continuous alarm that – points out Nick Smith – could bring Steve round should he be unconscious. In less than a minute Steve’s supervisor Ian, sitting across the table, receives an SOS alert on his iPhone and on his laptop. The SMS and email also provide a map reference on Google Maps, providing the exact location of the device. An email SOS alert has also been received by Hydra hydrant software operator Tamina Collier. Ian adds that shortly Dorset’s Fire Control will also be added to the list of SOS recipients as part of an update to the lone worker policy. In the event of an SOS alert, Fire Control will attempt to contact the worker by phone. If he cannot be contacted, the duty officer will be informed, as well as the police and the nearest fire station.

Ian explains that that same SOS alert would be sent out should Steve be lying motionless in a horizontal position, and should a pre-alert SOS messaging ‘beep’ not be acknowledged to cancel the alert. ‘Once I receive the message I’ll call Steve to make sure he’s ok, but normally Steve calls me and says not to worry. In the last year and a half it’s gone off maybe ten times by accident.’

As well as manual activation and horizontal man-down mode, the Trio also has a shock sensor to register jolts that could be caused by a fall or a crash.

On a day-to-day basis, Steve (pictured below, demonstrating his work) explains that when he leaves home he clips the Trio on his belt. ‘And that’s it. The Trio gives me peace of mind.’

Concluding, Ian Crabb highlights that the research phase had shown that the gold standard for lone worker protection was being able to detect when a person had been knocked unconscious. ‘And that is what we went for, because we also wanted to protect home safety fire officers who visit people who are not so friendly.’

Home fire safety visit

2008-9 was a bad year for Dorset FRS, with 13 fire-related deaths in 13 months, explains Home Fire Safety Advisor Vanessa Harvey. A report commissioned by the FRS established that of the 12 deaths, bar one, all the victims were over 60s and living on their own. Of the 12, three had no smoke detection. Of the nine remaining incidents, three involved detectors that were fitted correctly and six homes had defective detectors. The causes of the fires were smoking, and electrical equipment/wiring-related. ‘So it was decided that the best way forward was through education. A community safety task team was set up, originally made up of firefighters seconded for six months at a time. Their job was to go out and put up detectors, and talk about escape routes and how to avoid the obvious pit falls.’

The project worked so well that it led to the creation of a permanent group of 13 civilians, tasked specifically with carrying out home safety checks. ‘Our home safety checks are quite different to what was previously done. We now have SaIL – Safe and Independent Living – an initiative run by Age UK. It encompasses all agencies and it’s a massive point of reference for us, signposting us to the people who need us. We link to community health, social services, everybody. We do the whole thing, even something as random as an old lady wanting an new commode, or deaf alerts, fire retardant spray, fire retardant bedding, food banks – you name it, we sort it.’

The person we are visiting today is not in the typical age group of home fire safety visits. She is a young mother with a teenage son, and she is concerned that there is no smoke detection or escape route in her rented property. ‘Our visits take around an hour – and that is a straightforward one where I install a couple of smoke detectors. My longest one was two and a half hours.’  The worst visits are referrals from Social Services’ Child Care Team. ‘Often young single teenage mums, they see us as just figures of authority. They say “yes” to a visit, because they are told they need one, but then they don’t answer the phone, or acknowledge a friendly text message.’

Vanessa first trialed her Trio pager around a year ago. ‘It goes with us all the time, and we are often working after 5pm. Some of our appointments can end after 7pm. In winter it’s no fun driving round the country lanes at night.’

So far Vanessa hasn’t had to use the pager in anger, but it’s a reassuring presence. ‘If the alarm goes off they can see where we are because of GPS and they have access to our electronic diaries so they have the details of who we were visiting at the time. I haven’t had any unpleasant experiences but its good to know that if I ended up in a ditch I wouldn’t have to wait for someone to ring and say, they were due here three hours ago.’

We arrive in the cottage in the small village of Cattistock and the value of home safety visits becomes glaringly obvious. Helen (not real name) moved into the cottage nearly two years ago, as a stop gap solution, and fortunately for her and her son they are due to move out soon. Helen works with people with learning disabilities and as part of that training she has become highly aware of fire risks – including those in her home.

The cottage is on three levels, including a living room in the basement. There is only one evacuation exit, which is at the entrance to the house (and kitchen area) in the middle level. The entrance area has a porch containing an ancient washing machine and a dryer, and Vanessa is immediately seriously concerned, quickly to pointing out exposed wiring being used as an extension to a double socket. The advice comes thick and fast, ‘don’t use that on the plug’, ‘unplug it and leave it’, ‘don’t use the appliances overnight’, ‘make sure you vacuum the fluff filter drawer’.

As the inspection moves around the house it becomes clear that modern fire safety checks are not just a matter of installing smoke detectors. Vanessa checks the fridge freezer serial number against a list of manufacturer’s recalled models . She explains how as a tenant, Helen is entitled to see the electrical installation safety check. As she goes around the house, she dispenses little bits of fire safety wisdom; ‘always hoover the air intake of electrical equipment’; ‘always take off the wiring diagram on the back of plugs, if something goes wrong it will catch fire’; ‘if you need to smash a double glazed unit, the corners are the best place to smash.'

After the inspection, Vanessa (below) puts up three smoke alarms and repeats what Helen and her teenage son should do in the event of a fire. ‘If you cannot get out, stay in the bedroom. The control operator will talk you through what to do. You have a fire station up the road, only five minutes away, and if they are not available there are two other stations not far.’

The good-humoured visit concludes amidst smiles: we are all aware that Vanessa’s visit may have prevented a disaster and that all that valuable knowledge will travel wherever Helen moves to next. It seems only fair that people like Vanessa, who are out in the community making people safer, should in turn be protected and feel safe themselves.