Technology: Balance, Risk, and Benefit

That more technology is available than ever before, and that it is changing at a very rapid pace, is not a news flash. Fire departments regularly review options on technological changes. In the fire service, the onus to evaluate technology and determine its ultimate value compared to the required investment is on departments and chiefs. This seems relatively simple. Still, everyone needs a reminder from time to time to “look before you leap” when it comes to the latest and greatest widget designed to make the job easier, faster, and safer.

Technology could be simply defined as a means for accomplishing work. This appears to fit in the context of the fire service. Think of all the things that have been added to the fire service toolbox to help perform duties that help accomplish the mission, goals, and objectives of the department. Not too long ago there were only simple tools, hoses, and ladders. It would be hard to imagine a fire department without a great assortment of tools, some highly technical in nature. The technology used to help accomplish the work has expanded greatly in a generation. For example, something as essential as self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) was not “normalized” in the fire service until recently—within the past 30 to 40 years or so.

Technology is introduced to the fire service in different ways. First, it may be through a manufacturer that has invented or created an innovation that improves efficiency or effectiveness. Through advertisement, promotion, sales reps, and vendor shows, the new product is introduced as a way to help the department do its job. This would demonstrate a situation where industry could try to dictate technology to the fire service.

Sometimes members of the fire service discover a use for existing technology. And, on occasion, other governmental agencies or other municipal departments are responsible for technological advances. Regardless, in most cases, there is great promise to improve the operation.

Compare Costs and Benefits

Cost vs. benefit is most frequently the driving force behind decisions to enhance technology or introduce it. It involves remembering all the things that contribute to the cost and truly understanding the benefits.

Cost includes more than the initial price tag. Evaluate the hidden costs and potential future costs. For example, how much training will be required? There is a labor cost, which may include overtime to compensate employees to attend the training. Also consider ongoing maintenance and repair costs along with replacement. Paying the final invoice does not end financial obligations.

Evaluating the benefit includes a combination of things. It could include the frequency of use, the labor being saved, the consequences if the technology is not used, along with improvements to efficiency and effectiveness. Although fire departments will be called to potentially any type of emergency, it may not be practical to purchase something that would be rarely used. With other technologies, there may be savings in manual labor but not necessarily time. For example, there are power tools that do just about anything. In some cases, it might be more time and work to pull out the power tool than to do a small job manually. Though the actual job was easier, the setup time is not always worth the effort.

Wait for Round Two

When looking at technology, it is sometimes wise to not be one of the first ones in line. Occasionally early product versions have many bugs to be worked out. There are many examples of this in the fire service. For example, the first generation or two of PASS devices had some flaws. As for today’s version, there is really no comparison. As firefighters identified issues, they were corrected. In the meantime, many departments bought and replaced PASS devices with new and improved versions more than once. While it may be tempting to be the first one on your block to own the latest and greatest, it might not be prudent. I realize someone has to be first. If that is the case and you are intent on taking the leap, do more research than usual on the product and get a solid warranty.

On occasion, there are unintended consequences that make the benefits of the technology pale in comparison to the negative impact. As an example, early versions of carbon monoxide (CO) detectors were prone to false alarms. This caused many fire departments to increase their run volume to these calls. Once it was established that most, if not all, were false, a mindset developed that created response problems. While there was never any question that having a CO alarm was beneficial, the fact that there were excessive false alarms made people question their benefit. Subsequently the quality of the alarms has improved and the value of having CO alarms in the home is unquestioned.

Another issue to consider is the readiness of the organization to handle the technology. In the case of CO alarms, many fire departments were not adequately prepared to respond to these calls when the detectors first came out. They did not have adequate training or the monitors necessary to check for excessive amounts of CO. Fire departments responded to calls but were not exactly sure what to do when they arrived on scene. Subsequently, departments developed policies and obtained the proper equipment. Firefighters received the appropriate training, and today these responses are well coordinated, with countless people being saved when the alarms activated.

Technology Risks

There may be unknown risks associated with technology. For example, to protect computers and other electronics from fire, halon agents were developed. This was a better approach than water sprinkler systems in some situations. After being used for a period of time, halon’s harmful effects to the environment were discovered, and such agents have since been banned. Be sure to assess the potential risks technology may pose to safety.

More directly related to firefighter safety are technology improvements for personal protective equipment (PPE). Today’s equipment is significantly better than that being used just a few years ago. However, we must remember that there are often trade-offs. For example, protecting firefighters with improved PPE allowed them to advance farther into a fire. This created some other problems. Generally speaking, old techniques were being used with new technology. Understanding what the technology will do and addressing it through training and policy will maximize benefit while minimizing risk.

Nothing discussed here should discourage anyone from pursuing technology to improve the capabilities of the organization. Rather, remember there will be some impact with the addition of technology. Evaluate what is gained and what is lost in the trade-off. Eventually the technology will take hold, and departments will have better performance. This does not mean that departments should disregard due diligence. Always approach seemingly simple fixes with open eyes. Do the necessary research and talk to people. There will be an impact on something when technology changes. That impact does not need to be negative. Consider everything before you take the leap.

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 three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.

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