Proceed With Caution When Technology Beckons

Richard MarinucciBefore I begin this column on technology, I feel obligated to disclose that I am not the most technically savvy person and often long for the "good old days" of simple phones and hard copies. I am often the only person in a room that pulls out an old-fashioned pocket calendar to check my schedule. I mention this because it slants my view on technology a bit and makes me more cautious when I see the latest and greatest innovation that will fix just about any problem I may encounter.

The core mission of fire departments remains the same - respond to emergencies. The basic concept of firefighting has not changed - rescue people in harm's way and get enough water to the fire to overcome the BTUs. These may contrast with the rapidly changing world of technology that promises to do things better, faster and, supposedly, cheaper. By this I mean that the bulk of the important things done by a fire department remain labor intensive and are not as easily replaced by technology. The issue is not whether technology will help, but more a case of when is the right time to jump onboard and make the necessary investment.

There are many examples where the early introduction of technology proved to be very frustrating. Those who remember the first versions of personal alert safety system (PASS) devices recall that they were not especially reliable in the field, causing many to be disabled by the end user. Subsequent developments corrected many of the problems and integrated these valuable safety items into the self-contained breathing apparatus so the functionality and usefulness were appropriate for firefighters.

The concept of PASS devices was sound, but the technology was not developed enough in the early versions to provide the necessary reliability. Many fire departments spent a lot of money jumping on this trend before the units ultimately proved to be acceptable.

With technology you have to consider the overall value compared to the user-friendliness of the device. Many of the items are marketed as the "ultimate time-saving device" with promises to make jobs easier, faster, and more efficient. The challenge to fire departments is to evaluate exactly what the technology will improve upon and whether or not the cost will be worth the investment. Add to that the reliability and maintenance factors to truly see if you need the latest and greatest "widget." I tell people I have a basement full of good ideas!

Cost Versus Benefit

There is so much technology today, and it changes rapidly. When looking at the potential, you must consider cost, cost versus benefit, ease of use, training, maintenance, and repairs. You also need to realize that you will now become more reliant on others who better understand the advances we are seeing. There was a time when firefighters could make simple repairs to apparatus, pumps and valves. That probably does not happen much today because of the complex nature of the fire engines in service.

I have a friend who says you can fix anything if you have enough money. Likewise, you can get technology to do almost anything if you have enough in the budget. We all know that is not the case in the fire service. The sheer cost of some items makes them unattainable for many departments. If you recall the early versions of thermal imaging cameras, they were bulky and expensive. Only after the cost came down and grant opportunities became available were many departments able to take advantage of this technology. There is no question of the value, but initially the cost of the units did not gain them instant use.

Just because you can afford something doesn't mean you should get it. You can get a cell phone that does a limitless number of things. For a person like me, the technology is wasted. I need it to work as a phone and do simple e-mail. For me to pay for any more than that gives me no benefit. If you look through the trade journals or attend trade shows, you will see many things that could be of benefit to your operation. Is the value worth what you will pay? You and your organization must answer that. You can get radios that will perform many functions. What functions do you really need, and what can you afford?

Today's firefighters are doing so much more than fight fires. One result of this is an increase in training to learn the additional disciplines. If you add technology items, you will need to train your personnel on their use. Sometimes the manufacturer or sales rep will help with this; other times, you are left to your own accord.

You will have some members who are very intuitive with technology and others who take a little extra effort. (This might be a generational thing, but I shouldn't generalize!) Depending on the sophistication of the technology, consider the upfront effort that will be needed to maximize the benefits. If you are not able to commit the time necessary, you may wish to postpone your purchase.

Make sure you know the potential issues with maintenance and repairs. Something as simple as replacing batteries regularly can get to be relatively costly and time consuming. Even things that have rechargeable batteries require someone to remember to plug in the recharger. Many vehicles have so many items that they need constant charging from a land line and can drain the vehicle's battery. Older apparatus may not have been specified to handle the additional load, creating constant repair headaches.

Relying On Others

As you add technology, you more than likely will require someone else to do your maintenance and repairs. If you have a computer system, you have someone else handling your IT needs. You are at their mercy as far as timeliness and costs. Much of this is not cheap. As we become more reliant on technology, we become more reliant on others. Even if you think you or someone in your organization can fix something, you may be ill advised to do so. You may void your warranty or make things more difficult and expensive to repair.

Other things to consider are the reliability of items and the need for them to work under difficult conditions. If the technology on a fire truck fails, will you still be able to pump? Is there a way to troubleshoot and bypass the technology when you are at an emergency? Sometimes new generations of technology are not fully tested "under fire," and you need a backup plan or redundancy so you are not left trying to explain why the very expensive apparatus did not perform when needed.

The Old-Fashioned Way

When the new iPhone comes out, many people get in line to have the latest and greatest. Sometimes there are flaws, and the item does not perform as well as it should. We in the fire service hear of great things - maybe from a neighbor or a salesman. It might not always be good to be the first one to jump onboard. Use caution as you look for easier, faster, cheaper. It may not always be that simple, and you may not get what you thought you were getting. Sometimes the old-fashioned way is just fine for your organization.

Editor's Note: Richard Marinucci is chief of the Northville Township (Mich.) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (Mich.) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999 he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He holds three bachelor's degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.

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