By Richard Marinucci
There is no disputing that technology in society today is changing faster than ever-faster than anyone could have imagined. During the past 30 years, the fire service has experienced the effect of technology more so than during any period in its history. The changes have been both internal and external. Technological advances have affected emergencies and the hazards that are created. They have also impacted the preparation needed to respond, including apparatus, equipment, and training. As such, fire departments must continually monitor technological changes inside and outside the organization. Managing technology is a must.
What is meant by technology? I used my computer, the Internet, and Google to look it up. This in itself is a big change as it almost makes hard copy dictionaries obsolete. There were various definitions, with essentially the same meaning and covering the entire spectrum of what technology means. But in today’s world, technology most often is associated with electronic or digital products and systems. However, to develop a plan to manage the changes that will affect service delivery, the fire service must consider technology with this definition from www.dictionary.com: “the branch of knowledge that deals with the creation and use of technical means and their interrelation with life, society, and the environment, drawing upon such subjects as industrial arts, engineering, applied science, and pure science.” This definition offers a more global perspective.
One final consideration is that in the purest sense, progress and improvement are not part of any of the definitions. One could interpret this to mean that technology is “neutral” and the perspective of whether or not technology makes things better is “in the eye of the beholder.” Consider this when evaluating all technologies and their pros and cons.
Effects on Firefighting
Looking globally at technology, it is easy to see how it has affected operations in the fire service. New and different hazards have resulted, which should require the fire service to reevaluate strategies and tactics as well as training programs. One should look at changes in construction methods, new construction materials, and different contents that have impacted fire dynamics and realize that using the same methods of response will not work. Far too often these differences have been identified as contributing factors in line-of-duty deaths, serious injuries, and large-loss fires. Structures employing lightweight construction collapse sooner and some modern contents in rooms, such as furniture, burn faster and hotter and accelerate flashover.
There are other advances in technology that should change how fire departments respond and operate at emergencies. One technology definition talks about the application of science, especially to industrial or commercial objectives. A great example of this is the automobile industry. Some of the objectives of the industry are to comply with government standards for mileage and safety. To do this, the vehicles need to get lighter to improve mileage and stronger to improve safety. Developments in high-strength steel have been used to address these two areas. Extrication equipment and tactics must be adjusted to better provide the expected service. There are other developments in automobiles that already affect fire department response such as electric vehicles and alternative fuel use. Organizations that fail to keep up with these changes are more likely to make errors that not only affect service but could increase dangers to firefighters.
All organizations need to develop a plan to manage the inevitable changes that result from technological advances. Fire departments need a method to track the new (and possibly improved) technology that could affect operations. It is important to do so before the circumstances cause harm through injuries, deaths, and unnecessary damage. There are more tools available to organizations to do so. More research is being done by groups such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Underwriters Laboratories (UL).
Departments and individual firefighters must continually monitor these agencies, as well as others doing equally good work, to make sure they have the most understanding possible regarding issues created by changes in technology. Both NIST and UL have good Web sites and deliver electronic newsletters right to your computer. Besides these two, there are others doing similar work. As you hear about them, add them to your list to check and monitor their work.
Magazines, newsletters, and other Web sites cover much of what is new and changed. Organizations and firefighters need to commit to studying their profession to stay as current as possible. Although technology has created many changes in hazards, technology provides a method to improve knowledge to keep up with these changes. The professional journals and Web sites do a good job, but you should not limit yourself to just those publications in your profession. You can glean information from many sources. The job is clearly more complex and requires more studying to stay on top of issues. Another source of information is your own network. Expand your contacts and talk to others in your profession to assist you in formulating your management plan.
The second half of the technology equation is its impact on internal issues. Advances have changed apparatus, equipment, and communications. Not all of the changes automatically lead to improvements in service. There are many examples in most organizations of purchases made in haste without properly evaluating them that are not in use by the department. Departments must properly evaluate new apparatus and equipment, considering their pros and cons to make sure investments lead to improved service. When contemplating new technology, organizations must see that there is more to it than just the direct cost. You need to know the training requirements and the time and energy required to properly take advantage of the new equipment.
Another part of change is to anticipate the willingness of employees to embrace it. If members are not sold on the change, their efforts may not be adequate to realize the expected improvement. Because of this, it is important to include employees in evaluations of new technologies.
Social Media’s Impact
The last issue to cover with technology is the potential problems that electronic media create, including social media and e-mail. First, social media is still evolving, and how it eventually ends is still unknown. Suffice it to say, many people have found themselves in trouble because of social media use. This is not just a fire service issue because people in all walks of life have found themselves in trouble because of something posted on Facebook or a video uploaded to YouTube.
Fire service organizations should do two things. First, draft a policy. Examples are available to use, but creating a policy is significant enough to warrant a review by an attorney. Second, talk to your employees and let them know not only about the policy but the risks of using social media improperly. This area is changing rapidly, and organizations need to stay as current as possible. Training and educating your personnel may be your best options to help prevent future problems.
Speaking of YouTube, the fact that anyone can take video of your operation and post it for the world to see in a matter of minutes should cause you to take action. This means that all personnel must be on their best behavior at all times and must know that all of their actions, especially when in uniform, may be captured for broadcast. Further, job performance will also be more accountable as pictures and videos taken could not only lead to potential legal issues but also be just plain embarrassing. Treat people right all the time and continue to improve your service. You and your organization cannot stop what people record and post. You can only control your performance and behavior. Take this very seriously.
Technology is vast and dynamic. Whether or not you like what is happening is irrelevant. Develop a management plan to better anticipate emerging issues and adapt to the changing world. Being proactive is the best approach.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board member, 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 has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.