Technology’s Occasional Downfall

Chris McLoone

In this column I often espouse embracing technology when it will help us be more efficient on the fireground and at the station.

As I write this, we are in the beginning stages of mourning the loss of two Boston (MA) Fire Department members, and technology has played a big part in media coverage of the incident.

Like many, I followed the incident as it unfolded via the Worldwide Web. I visited different social media outlets I know are usually on top of these types of incidents. I also went straight to the source, checking the Web sites for Boston’s two major newspapers.

Since I was still at work at the time of the fire, I refrained from listening to the many live audio outlets available via the Internet. So, I relied on different news outlets. From the fire service side of things, there was a tremendous amount of coverage. News of a Mayday being called with two firefighters trapped in the basement spread quickly-especially with the fire quickly escalating to five alarms and ultimately going to nine alarms.

The beauty of the Internet is it connects us all together and allows a story out of Boston to reach the West Coast as well as overseas. The fire service has always been one big family, but online news outlets really help all of us support a department at tragic times. However, this technology, as great as it is, has a very serious downfall.

I would never decry online live audio of these incidents. These feeds are no different than programming a portable scanner to listen to the police or fire. I use live audio feeds all the time when I’m out on business travel to listen to what’s going on back home. The difference is that once I turn off the app, I’m not going to hear that audio again-unless it has been recorded and uploaded so anyone can listen to it online.

There are two instances I can think of involving audio that should not have been recorded and uploaded. The first is an incident in Pennsylvania, where a lieutenant was severely burned at a fire when he and another firefighter were searching a dwelling with reported entrapment and were caught in a flashover. I indulged and listened to the audio and had to stop when I heard the trapped lieutenant’s screams over the radio. They weren’t screams for help. They were screams of what sounded like pure agony to me.

The second fire is the Boston nine-alarmer. Again, I admittedly indulged when I saw a link to audio. I also indulged in January when we lost two Toledo (OH) firefighters. I listen more as a training tool. I listen to the incident commanders and try to take teaching points from the fires back to my own crew. I don’t do this to comment on what went wrong or what crews did wrong. I listen to see how command reacts and deploys resources. And to my crew, I reiterate things like the importance of knowing where you are at all times to communicate it to command.

But, the Boston audio is troubling. It includes what may be the last transmission the trapped crew made. It includes audio of a dispatcher working very hard to relay communications from the trapped to command and to reassure the trapped firefighters. This audio is not something to be recorded and made available to millions of people worldwide.

Technology, when used properly and with great thought, is a wonderful thing and has benefitted the fire service in more ways than I can mention. However, as with anything, there is a time and place for its use. A few weeks ago, the use of drones to record video at the scene of an explosion and fire was called into question. To my way of thinking, we ought to be cracking down on uploaded audio of tragic events vs. someone using a drone for video. We should be calling into question the rationale of posting video of firefighters doing chest compressions to revive a down firefighter, which occurred at the Boston fire. These are powerful images; the audio was powerful as well. But, both were improper uses of technology.

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