One way to look at the future is to look at the past. Someone once told me that the best indicator of what lies ahead may be found in past history. By looking back, we may be able to look forward, if that makes any sense. We may have to look into this more deeply to see if we can make any sense of this.
Government and the fire service are not usually on the leading edge of technological advances. This is not to cast any aspersion but only to point out that government, particularly on the local level where the fire service resides, is not prone to investing in research and development. It relies on the private sector in most cases and then adapts as things fit the mission of government. For example, government wasn’t the first industry to embrace computers for everyday use for virtually all employees. Now you would be hard pressed to find anyone in government not connected via this technological means of communication.
Of course, there are always exceptions to this in that the military often develops the latest and greatest with respect to technological advances. Thermal imaging cameras were used in the military long before they reached routine use in the fire service. Developments from NASA and the space program eventually made their way into the fire service and are now commonplace.
With that said, perhaps one way to look at the future is to consider where these two elements of society have been recently and some of the advancements they have made. In both cases, they continue to embrace technological advances to progress. They look for a competitive advantage to improve profits or, in the case of the military, to gain an edge on their enemies. There are ways to gain information through media, magazines, Web sites, and the like. Some of the items get more mainstream coverage while others are still released in more controlled ways.
One example is the use of drones. The military has developed some very reliable and functional apparatus. Today there are many knockoffs, and the price range for these flying machines is huge. Consumers can buy small versions for recreational use for a relatively small price. There are much more expensive units that do a lot more and are more durable with longer flight times among other advantages. Regardless, the growing use of these devices would seem to indicate that their use will make it into government and the fire service more and more, likely sooner rather than later. It might be prudent for members of the fire service to look seriously at the potential uses and also some of the drawbacks. What can be gained and at what expense? This is just one example of looking at some emerging technologies and determining potential uses. It behooves professionals in this service to continually look for ways to improve, including methods made possible through technology.
Technology is advancing with videos, mapping, geographic information systems (GIS), spin tours, and other spatial options that can be beneficial in providing reconnaissance to responding personnel. Google and others can provide virtual tours of properties. This offers the potential to provide preincident information that could prove invaluable during emergencies-not just fires. The information may be available for some businesses in your community in that the businesses are using these virtual tours to attract or enhance their businesses. This is progressing rapidly, and I expect more departments will take advantage of the information this can provide.
Besides technology, there are a few other areas that warrant consideration during the coming year. By looking backward, we may get some hints as to what may be ahead. The previous few years have seen an uptick in research in the fire service, mostly because of grants. The research has covered a lot of territory, from tactics and strategy to firefighter health and wellness. The success of the research in improving individuals and organizations leads one to believe that it will continue, and the information that is either discovered or confirmed will continue to reshape the fire service.
These studies and scientific research projects provide additional information that will continue to become more vital to decision makers whether or not they are on the fireground or providing leadership in nonemergency situations. Fireground commanders and all those working there must integrate the findings of science into their tactics to maximize their effectiveness-not only with this information but in conjunction with their staffing and available tools.
Regarding the nonemergency information, personnel must take steps to use findings to improve operations while protecting firefighters from unnecessary harm or risk. For example, some of the information is relevant to heart health, cancer prevention, and mental health. Failure to learn as much as possible will keep organizations from improving the safety of their employees.
Recent economic indicators seem to show that the worst of the recession is over and things are improving. This is good news, but there are some things to consider. The bad news for government and the fire service is that the recent economic struggles have resulted in a new normal. Finances have been reset, and many policy makers have now changed their expectations and are not likely to return to previous spending models. There is a new norm, and even though the economy is improving, there will be more caution and controlled growth. Staffing models may take a while to return to acceptable levels, and since disaster has not struck in many areas, policy makers are more willing to take the risk that this trend will continue. Remuneration and benefits for firefighters will not return to previous levels for some time except in a few communities. Although times are getting better, don’t expect carte blanche offers or voluntary returns to “the good old days” that are actually not that far in the past.
To summarize, the coming year should offer a lot of optimism for better times. Financial stability will return to many organizations, though not to expected levels. Regardless, this provides an opportunity to rebuild some parts of the service that were either cut or put on hold. In addition, technological advances offer opportunities to improve services. Fire service professionals must continually monitor advances both in and out of the service to stay on top of potential improvements. Finally, pay attention to the studies and research. They will continue to impact the future in many aspects of what we do.
There are no earth-shattering predictions here but more of a common sense approach to looking at issues that most likely will affect operations. There is no need to get too far out in front of the next wave but more of a need to catch it at the right spot. Although we expect efficiency and effectiveness improvements from technology advances, we must remember that changes create challenges. Advances require study to determine applicability and commitment to training once adopted. Things that may save time will require upfront investment in time. Look at the value the fire service gains compared to the required effort.
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.