By Chris Mc Loone
Innovation and technology can be double-edged swords. On one hand, the innovation that leads to new technologies for us is the backbone of the fire service in general. We have always found new ways to perform our service, which has for the most part, made us more efficient at our jobs. On the other hand, technology and innovation can be scary. Often there’s a learning curve, and there is often a very real fear that technology could make us so efficient, there may not be a need for so many of us.
We cover innovation extensively within these pages every month. Suppliers consistently come up with products that help us do our jobs more efficiently and safely. This month’s cover story is a perfect example. Fifteen years ago, who would have predicted that our turnout gear, whose purpose until recently was to protect us from fire and other products of combustion, would be providing incident commanders (ICs) or safety officers with critical physiological information about the firefighters inside a structure? Moreover, how many firefighters would have predicted we would have tracking systems in our self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) that would communicate to ICs our location within structures? And, tracking systems are also finding their way into turnout gear. My guess is that although some may have thought, “That would be nice,” not many had an idea of how the fire industry would actually pull of such a feat.
Speaking of turnout gear, it wasn’t too long ago that we wondered-sometimes to each other, sometimes just to ourselves-if our gear is so good at protecting us that it has been getting us into trouble. Some have speculated that our gear encapsulates us to the point that our awareness of the conditions surrounding us is lessened to a degree. It’s not illogical to think this way, however, we are smarter than that. We know that our personal protective equipment (PPE) is a tool, one which requires training to use effectively and one which has caused us to rethink tactics-particularly when we consider just what it is that is burning these days in a room and contents fire. Still, there are those veterans who think we should get rid of our hoods so we can go back to using our ears as indicators of when it’s too hot. C’est la vie.
Innovation Through Data
All that said, there is one area of innovation that should concern all of us. Innovation born through data can go either way when it comes to the fire service. Municipalities use data to determine staffing levels, funding levels, capital expenditures, and so on.
In some ways, the data we cite every day have led to some apparatus innovations. The quint concept pioneered by the St. Louis (MO) Fire Department is one example. More recently, the shift to specifying multipurpose apparatus that can carry more equipment so the same crews can perform more tasks is a good example. Call it whatever you want to call it. These types of apparatus are born from data that say we are expected to perform more tasks on the fireground with fewer people and apparatus.
Other innovations in equipment layout and deployment have come about because of the reality that we do more with less. But, there is a difference between innovating because we often have to do more with less and innovating SO we can do more with less. I can’t think of any innovation we have come up with in the fire service whose sole purpose was to ensure we don’t need as many people to do the job.
Make It Work for Us
As departments collect more and more data about response times, response durations, firefighters responding, apparatus responding, and so on, they are providing the “bean counters” with the ammunition they need to make cuts. In some cases, the cuts are what they are-a municipality might order all departments to cut five percent of their expenses, for example. But at other times, the financial folks scrutinize the data departments collect to make suggestions. This is often where departments can get in trouble.
I recently sat in on a presentation by Jeff Johnson, CEO for the Western Fire Chiefs Association. His presentation focused on innovation, and during it he said, “We have got to know our science and our data better than our enemies because if we don’t, we’ll lose.” To me, this is the crux of how we work with innovation.
It’s not the turnout gear that that gets us in trouble. It’s not being tactically sound enough to use other means to increase our awareness of our surroundings and conditions that is getting us into trouble. The turnout gear is our tool, and we need to use it correctly.
Thermal imaging cameras (TICs) are as pervasive as SCBA in departments today. They help us find trapped victims at fires as well as down firefighters. No one is suggesting that they should replace tried and true search and rescue tactics.
Don’t shun innovations because someone somewhere might say that using such technology will allow a department to cut personnel. All the tools in the world will sit idle without people to use them. To do our jobs efficiently, we need people. Do your job, and remind everyone of that fact. Innovation and data will cut people only if we allow them to. Learn the data, and make the numbers work YOUR way.
Stay on Top of Things
Innovation and technology that allow us to collect data are nothing to be afraid of, so don’t fear them. They are the latest tools in our arsenal to ensure we are equipped to do what we need to do, both with equipment and personnel. Chiefs-we all know that many of the best managers are the ones who delegate tasks to ensure they get done. But don’t manage yourselves into being out of touch with what is going on with your troops. You can delegate apparatus specification, but don’t forget to look at the specs and know what your firefighters are using and why. When you know what they are using, you can defend it and work the data to your advantage. Innovation today means much more than building a bigger pump, a smaller TIC, or lighter hose. It’s now coming in the form of software and information gathering. Don’t forget these two important parts and learn to embrace them or, as Johnson said, we will lose.