By Richard Marinucci
Using technology to improve performance, efficiency, and reliability is applicable to all aspects of the fire service. This would include the various components that make up fire trucks.
There will continue to be developments, and this will change the way vehicles are put together and will affect operation, maintenance, and training. In addition, added job responsibilities will require a rethinking of many aspects of the fire vehicles to accommodate new and different equipment that is needed to address changing service demands and requests. Certainly, most components are continually adding technology to improve.
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One example to look at is the warning devices on vehicles. LED lighting, warning sirens, and vehicle marking have changed the way a vehicle looks and warns of responding apparatus. The LEDs are brighter and more efficient. There are advantages to this but also some things to consider. Are the lights too bright when operating at night on the roadways to the point where oncoming traffic becomes visually impaired to some extent? Consideration needs to be given to vehicle design and operational procedures. The point is that as things change, there should not be a casual approach but serious consideration as to what this may mean to operations. Often, most personnel won’t know what is affected, but those who have overall responsibility must stay up on what is changing.
Technology has made operating fire pumps much easier and, arguably, more reliable. One way to look at this would be to view new cars and the technology used under the hood. In most cases, the engines are too complicated for quick adjustments and fixes. Special equipment is needed to perform diagnostics. Contrast this with the simpler vehicles of yesteryear. A backyard mechanic could have a basic tool set and mechanical knowledge and be able to get a car running. This is not quite so simple if a modern car breaks down. The same could be said about a basic fire pump.
Older apparatus were relatively simple, and if a pump failed on a fireground, a competent engineer could go through some simple steps and often get the pump operational. With the advent of more technology, it is not quite as simple to fix things on the fly. Pump operators will need a new method of troubleshooting so that when things go wrong, the overall fire operation can continue. The good news is that the reliability has improved greatly, so consistency is attained.
As more battery-powered tools and equipment are added to vehicles, they can stress the apparatus’s electrical system. Some departments are transitioning to saws, extrication tools, and the like powered by rechargeable lithium batteries. These need to be maintained and connected whenever possible to make sure they are at full power when needed. Obviously when parked in the fire station, land lines can be connected. When out and about, there can be extra draw on the vehicle’s battery system. Sufficient power must be provided along with the right number of charging stations and outlets. It seems like ambulances have been ahead of the game, as much of the medical equipment carried requires charging, so this has been factored in. In the case of fire trucks, it seems more battery-operated equipment and tools are added later.
Recently, I was made aware that there are solar panel systems that can be added to the roofs of trucks that will provide a backup source of electricity that could offer an option for powering chargers. Properly evaluate these systems to check on the feasibility of utilizing this technology. This would include added weight to the vehicle, cost vs. benefit analysis, and effectiveness. But, this demonstrates how things can change and often rapidly. The need to stay current and continually monitor the literature and other sources has never been more important.
Looking at the technology in modern vehicles should give us some idea of the potential for add-ons to fire apparatus. Consider Bluetooth® technology. Ancillary devices are connected and voice commands are used. This could improve communication and affect safety by allowing operators to do their jobs without reaching for microphones or looking for directions. Transmitting the address electronically and then having the directions given verbally will help on the safety front and also on response time. Maybe we can add an “Alexa” type of device to help do research or find out additional information regarding a structure. “Alexa, pull up the preincident plan and tell me any special hazards.”
Another communication tool that will expand will be FirstNet. This dedicated public safety network will continually evolve to add more tools in the toolbox for firefighters. We are only beginning to scratch the surface as to its potential. Besides the advantages of preemption and priority, there will be more development of emergency-specific “apps” that will provide more information more quickly. There will also be more opportunities to transmit videos and other information that can help with abatement and mitigation. But, like with anything, there needs to be a workable plan as to how this will take place and then the required policies and training. The add-ons to the vehicles will change the way business is being done.
Are we sure what the next addition to our mission will be? By that, it is meant that additional hazards and types of calls are added to the responsibilities of fire departments all the time. This will have an impact on the apparatus and the tools carried. This could change how you look at components. To view it another way, consider the additions to your apparatus in the past 10 to 15 years. This has often crowded compartments, required adaptations, and added weight. If you take out your crystal ball, perhaps you can tell what is coming down the road. But often, vehicles get changed long before their normal life span runs out.
The next wave of apparatus components will be determined by technological advances and the need for fire apparatus to meet the needs of service delivery. Continued developments and using advancements will continue to challenge fire departments to stay current and use what works best for their service delivery model. In the end, there should be an improvement in reliability and dependability. This is critical to all fire departments as they seek ways to get better at what they do and also prepare for added job responsibilities. Almost all aspects of the fire service are getting more complicated and more reliant on technological advances. This is no different with the apparatus components—more things to consider but very important.
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.