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Belgian Firefighters Heading Towards the Day After Tomorrow

After the Niveau S conference in Brussels (November 2018), VIAS Institute, Netwerk Brandweer and EY decided to collaborate in innovating the Belgian fire departments. On October 17, EY will organize the FIRESTARTER HACKATHON. During 24 hours, startups, scale-ups, developers, students and firefighters will form teams to take on three challenges to future-proof the fire department: Smart Buildings, Smart Mobility and Smart Fire Services. Firefighting experts will coach the participants with real-life experience covering firefighter needs. The winning teams will be announced at the Back2The Future Fire Fighting Congress on October 18 and 19, in Antwerp.

Innovating public services is one of the great challenges many countries face these days. Emerging technologies like blockchain and RPA can have a huge impact on the services a government can offer to its citizens. Alternatively, AR and smart sensors could revolutionize the efficiency and safety of our firefighting services. Thierry Mortier, EY Global Innovation Lead for Energy, shares his knowledge about the opportunities for innovation in fire departments.

Thierry Mortier – EY Global Innovation Lead for Energy

A true technology enthusiast, Thierry Mortier advises EY’s clients on the impact of innovative technology in their businesses, and how new business models can be developed. This includes the application of Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence and blockchain, which is his favorite playground. However, innovation doesn’t only come with new technologies. During the last Innovation Realized Summit in April 2019, Thierry was pleased to see his clients realize that a great amount of opportunity lay in cross-industry collaboration. “The Innovation Realized Summit has evolved into a platform where clients talk about innovation rather than EY, which is a totally different take. Clients love the interaction between the different sectors,” he explains.

On a rainy afternoon in the EY Ghent office, we sat down with Thierry Mortier for an interesting conversation about the three intriguing innovation challenges the Firestarter Hackathon teams will tackle next month.


“The electrification of mobility is inevitable,” Thierry continues. “We estimate a tipping point between 2023 and 2025. This will cause plenty of new challenges for many (public) services, including the fire departments. How will they extinguish a fire caused by an electric vehicle? We should also look at the advantages of having our roads filled with connected cars. Think of the data we can use in terms of traffic control. Automatic notification of supporting instances like fire departments could lead to a faster access to the place of emergency. All vehicles are enormous sensors of different kinds: they measure temperature, impact, traffic jams, but also pollution. Public services can really benefit from the data smart mobility generates.”


In 2009, an EU directive came into force, mandating utility providers to replace existing residential electricity meters with new, smart meters in the coming years.* This is a huge ongoing challenge for the utilities sector: providing smart meters in the homes of citizens as well as guaranteeing the protection of this data from potential cyber hacks. “The smart meter is a gateway into houses, but so is a decoder from your digital television provider. They open up opportunities for “behind the meter” services, which in most cases are IoT related services. Firefighting services would be able to connect differently with houses. For example, they could connect fire and smoke detectors to those smart meters. Think about the potential of predictive services.”

Smart meters

“Connected meters have already existed for a long time in the power & utility industry; we use them to predict big outages in companies. The sensors identify exactly where the outage will be, so the company can proactively set up intervention plans to remediate the outage. A very similar principle can be adapted for firefighting services, which does not only account for individual households, but for bigger sites as well.” Thierry concludes that focus on prevention is crucial when thinking of the future of firefighting. “Without a doubt, connected homes or buildings are an essential source of data to predict potential fire risk. Proactively minimizing the risk will play a huge role in future firefighting services and is honestly a far more positive scenario than sending the firefighters to fix the problem.”


Next to the opportunities of connected homes and smart mobility, the processes of firefighting services itself can be optimized with new technologies. Thierry emphasizes the importance of customer-focused services: “How do people want to report a fire? Calling 112? Or do they prefer sending a WhatsApp message and have an immediate response? For a lot of people, the latter might be a better way of communicating with emergency services. Speaking of incoming requests, the fire departments could work with chatbots to filter requests during a storm. Instead of an individual having to process thousands of incoming calls, a chatbot could process those requests much faster. That way, the individual could focus more on serious incidents, while the chatbot processes every fallen tree.”

Apart from obvious evolution like the use of drones, there are numerous examples of other applications that can be developed for fire departments. “AI and machine learning, for example. I can’t imagine there are no cases where data wouldn’t make a difference in prevention,” Thierry states. “AI is the art of recognizing patterns and making predictions based on historical data sets. If we use data that’s already been collected, I’m convinced there are many cases in which we could predict the areas with a higher risk of carbon monoxide intoxication, for instance. You could also look at firefighting scheduling crews during peak traffic times, or predicting wildfires. We are in touch with startups looking into predicting wildfires and how to better control them. AI and data analytics are on top of their technology stack.”

“Technology should augment human capabilities, not replace them.”

Does this mean technology should replace the individual? “Today, we see that most of the new technologies are still in a first iteration where they augment the capabilities of the individual and can replace some repetitive tasks, but not an actual individual,” Thierry replies. “Pattie Maes from MIT Media Labs describes it beautifully: technology is a human being’s sixth sense. Of course, these technologies will keep on evolving. The question of job redundancy through technology should be replaced by another: can these tasks be replaced by more meaningful tasks? Productivity is not always translated through a headcount reduction. It can also be translated through an increase of time to market, in speed and quality or in customer satisfaction. Automation does not necessarily lead to reducing headcount.”

A beautiful example of technology augmenting firefighting capabilities is how a robot was used to control the Notre Dame Cathedral fire in April 2019. The robot, named Colossus, prevented the cathedral from collapsing. Being remotely controlled at a distance of almost 300 meters, Colossus successfully entered the cathedral and extinguished the fire in unsafe places, too hot for individuals to approach. The robot was equipped with cameras and sensors to provide crucial data, giving the firefighters an accurate understanding of the situation.

Colossus – Photo Shark Robotics


Although the fire departments are a not-for-profit service, Thierry Mortier points out the opportunity for them to be more consumer-focused by building valuable services for the citizens, without minimizing their primary purpose and mission. Collaborating with different industries is a key innovator. The Firestarter Hackathon is a perfect starting point for the Belgian fire departments: “The firefighting services are fulfilling an important role in society by protecting people and being safety advisors. In the Power & Utilities industry, a lot of research goes to the cause of wildfires. It appears there is a direct connection between utilities that have caused the wildfire because of maintenance issues versus the tremendous consequences of wildfires, causing companies to go bankrupt. Preventing wildfires is extremely important to the utilities industry. Automatically, the firefighting services are a symbiotic partner in this mission. The partnership works both ways: the firefighters can benefit from utility companies installing sensors. Finding your natural neighbors and seeking to collaborate is key during the hackathon.”

On the other hand, the devil is in the execution! “I’m convinced the hackathon will be a huge source for new ideas. But what will happen after the hackathon? How can the fire departments start applying change and execute the winning ideas? The execution usually fails, so it’s important to address this topic beforehand. Adopting change means cultural change, educating and training people by explaining why these changes are meaningful: it’s not just fewer people executing the job, but instead will focus on doing more meaningful tasks. That’s the core of a successful digital transformation and I’m very pleased to see that the fire department is aware of that.”

“The devil is in the execution. There’s always a reason to say it’s difficult.”

Is this process different for a public organization, compared to a private company? “In both cases, you need to transform a “non-agile giant” into an agile giant. In essence, there is very little difference between a public and a private company. There are differences in terms of funding models, management and regulation. But I think those differences should not be a show-stopper for doing things differently. At the end of the day, public departments operate with a certain purpose and a mission. They have a budget, and they have people with ideas, just like private organizations. So there’s no reason to think that they are incapable of innovating at all. As I said, there are differentiating factors, but this also applies to different industries. There’s always a reason to say that it’s difficult.”


Thierry concludes: “Mutual acceleration is a big advantage of open innovation initiatives like this hackathon. When startups and corporates get together, it’s crucial they understand the strengths and weaknesses on both sides. Only with a deep understanding of the other’s perspective and needs, do both parties truly enrich one another. The Factory provides a wonderful format where this connection is made possible and has meaningful outcomes. Great collaborations happen every day!”

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* “Creating a smarter, safer grid for meters”,