By Robert Tutterow
Technology? What do you mean technology?
We don’t need no stinkin’ technology! Yes, technology and the fire service are often like trying to mix oil and water. On the surface, firefighting is not exactly a high-tech job. Forcing entry, ventilating, deploying hoselines, and laddering buildings are not exactly high forms of technology. We have been doing it from the beginning, and we’re doing it now.
Nonetheless, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) held a Technology Symposium this past summer in Oakland, California. The two-day event consisted of 75 invited personnel from a cross section of the United States fire service. The summit addressed where we are with technology, where we might be headed, and how we might get there. It focused on five general topic areas: command and control; emergency operations; health, wellness, and occupational diseases; tools and equipment; and training.
The group at the summit acknowledged that many within the fire service are not enthused about technology. As alluded to in the opening paragraph, technology is not on the radar screen of most firefighters. Parallel to the perceived lack of need is the concern about technology’s cost along with the ability for it to be user-friendly and robust. As expected, the summit gravitated toward the electronics that encompass our lives on a minute-by-minute basis. The fire service has had its share of electronics failures when it comes to apparatus and equipment. Anyone remember the attempts at an electronic pump panel a generation ago? The concept is still not accepted, but I project it will be-some day. Outside of portable radios and hand lights, one of the first pieces of electronic equipment for firefighters was the PASS device. Though there have been bumps along the road, PASS devices are standard, reliable, and affordable for the most part. Another good example is the thermal imaging camera. Does anyone remember what they cost when they were first introduced? Today, you can buy a dozen or more for that original price. Almost all consumer electronic products have come down in price.
One of the obstacles in reducing the price of electronics specific to the fire service is the simple lack of numbers for a profitable venture. Fire and emergency services are such a small market that it is hard to drive research and development. That is one of the primary reasons that Assistance to Firefighters Grants and research and development grants are so crucial. With that said, what might be next for the fire service in electronics? It appears it might lie in the vast world of sensors. Sensors are appearing everywhere and getting cheaper. They are in infrastructure, warfare, manufacturing, healthcare, transportation, and structures. The technology is available for firefighter physiological and health monitoring. It is also available for firefighter location and tracking while on the scene. The value of knowing where a firefighter is located is immeasurable. And, the ability to monitor the physiological status a firefighter could be a tremendous tool in reducing cardiac events.
Another huge topic at the summit was the subject of data. It was stated that data is the new oil. Those who have it will be better off than those without. This is a huge issue for the fire service. More data has been accumulated in the past two years than all previous years combined. The manner in which the fire service uses data will determine, in large part, its sustainability. Data can be cherry-picked and used against the fire service. However, having thorough, accurate, and compelling data will typically put the fire service on the prevailing side of budget requests.
The intent of this column is to encourage the fire service to embrace technology at all levels. To do otherwise will be a self-inflicted and eventually fatal disease. Often we do not realize we need something until we have it. It’s time for a war story. In the early 1990s, I participated in a marketing group that met two to three times a month during the lunch hour to provide feedback on possible new products and services. About a dozen of us would listen to a presentation and provide our feedback. The last time I attended the focus was on cell phones. We offered input on ways to add value to the cell phone. The presenter offered clues into features now common with smart phones. As the facilitator went around the table soliciting ideas from the participants, I happened to be last. I silently dismissed the input of the others and said all that was needed were three things: the ability to make a call, the ability to receive a call, and the ability to leave or receive a message.
I was never invited back. Lesson learned.
ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. His 34-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active in the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Education Resource Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).