Think about the technology in play today that has made many firefighters’ jobs easier. There are power saws to replace axes, extrication tools to enhance rescue capabilities, and lightweight materials that allow easier usage of tools. Even still, firefighting remains a labor-intensive job, and understaffing will not help get to the best possible outcome.
There are some who promote technology as a means to overcome inadequate staffing, and they may be correct in some instances. But, there are certain parts of the job that require sufficient numbers of people. Knowing the difference can be very helpful in making decisions and not being placed in a position of understaffing. Of course, I realize that budgetary considerations drive staffing decisions, but knowing a bit more about this can help make the argument to maintain or increase staffing regardless of some of the labor savings attributed to technology.
NOT HUMAN REPLACMENT
Technology often promises to make the work easier, more efficient, and more effective. This is usually the case, but there can still be some challenges and issues to consider. First, there are startup costs including not only the purchase of the technology but also the required training. One thing that also contributes to expenses is the time needed to adjust to the technology. The initial training is only the start. It often takes additional time to become comfortable with the new device or software. There must be sufficient time for practice to become competent. Depending on the use, the need to be unconsciously competent may be mandated. This is in cases where there is little or no time to think, and the members need to perform to a particular standard to produce the desired outcome. There are other circumstances where there is time to work your way through the process and there is no particular pressure to use technology instantly. In these cases, there can be frustration in getting to the point of being able to take advantage of the technology.
There are some technologies that replace the need for manual labor. If you go back in time, the only way to get water from a pump was to use a lot of people to manually operate the machine. Once motorized pumps were developed, there was no longer a need for all those people for that operation. They could then be deployed to other aspects of the job. To bring that into today’s world, there are machines that perform CPR, relieving firefighters of this task and allowing them to do other things during an incident to produce better results. The use of the machines doesn’t mean personnel aren’t needed if you want to improve on the outcomes. It means that the resources can be redirected to other tasks that are necessary for a successful operation.
If you look at these two examples, you could say that technology can replace personnel since the machines are doing the work. But, perhaps another way to view it would be that the technology allows you to do your job better and frees up firefighters to do more to address the emergency and look toward using the personnel better to do the things that will make a difference. You now have more tools to make better decisions. To do this, you need to understand your tools and their capabilities. There are situations where there is a natural fit and others where there must be adjustments. There is no magic; technology doesn’t fix everything, and when it does, it may not be exactly the same in each circumstance.
HAVING A PLAN B
Another question to consider is, what will happen when the technology fails or doesn’t work as intended? Do you have the tools and ability to resort back to another method to make up for the failures? In some cases, it is very straightforward. If your power saw malfunctions, you take out the ax and use manual labor. If the CPR machine isn’t available, you perform CPR. These are relatively simple examples and demonstrate the need to maintain staffing for the cases when you need to resort to Plan B. In other cases, it requires training and knowledge. For example, you need to know what to do if the technology fails to engage the fire pump. You will have to override the system or replace the pump with another. During an emergency, you will not have much time to do this, so competence is extremely important. It takes effort to maintain that competence through training as well as the time necessary. Obviously, there are many job responsibilities, so this aspect of the job can get lost in the business of the work. It is easy to move on and “trust” that nothing will ever go wrong. But, Murphy’s Law often raises its head at inopportune times, and it is up to true professionals to be prepared.
TECHNOLOGY HAS ITS PLACE
The thoughts here are not to disparage technological advances in society and particularly those intended for the fire service. The theme is that there are places for technology and cases where its value is unquestioned. But, there are also instances where there is little or no value other than to say that technology is being used. Technology will not fix everything, nor will it make things faster, better, easier, or whatever. Just because a product makes promises does not mean it is the right thing for you. You will need to evaluate the benefits vs. the investment needed. Will the cost be worth it? You and your organization have to decide that. But, always take into consideration the total costs, which will also include the time invested and training requirements. It is difficult to find that “magic bullet” that fixes everything.
Technology has improved service delivery in many areas of the fire service. In some cases, it has helped overcome some deficiencies in staffing. But, there are still cases where manual labor is required to do the job right. Organizations need to know where technology advances the department and where staffing challenges remain. Operations have to evolve to take advantage of technology and may also require reassessing the level of service that can be provided. Taking away personnel because of technology is rarely the best option. The fire service remains a labor-intensive business and will most likely continue that way for a long time. If you want to do the best you can, you need hands to do much of the work. The temptation to declare that some technological advances allow for a decrease in staff must be overcome and only when there are concrete reasons should this be the deciding factor.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA). 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 and Fire Engineering 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.