Technology: What Is It and How Do I Know If I Need It?

Rich Marinucci details technology and what it means to the fire service.
When you hear the word “technology,” what does it mean to you? Is it mostly about electronics, computers, and the like? Or is it about a broader view that takes into consideration advances that are intended to improve something?

If you look at the big picture, you can see that there has been much advancement in the fire service in the most recent past. There has been an impact on virtually every aspect of the business and the rate of change has been very quick. There seems to be a new and improved product coming out every day. This presents a challenge for fire departments to know what is being introduced, whether it will make a difference in their operation, and if the return on investment is worth it.

Let’s break this down and look at these aspects of technology. First, what is different? How do you find out what has changed and what products are available? This can be for completely new products or improvements to existing ones. It can be for apparatus, power tools, personal protective equipment, hand tools, hardware, and software. This is not an all-inclusive list but gives you an idea of all the things that go into the delivery of emergency services.

There are many ways to learn about changes—from magazines, advertisements, neighboring fire departments, salespeople, and suppliers. Trade shows are another good source of technological advances. Technology itself offers methods such as the internet and social media. Of course, the pandemic has created many challenges including learning of innovations. This should not be an excuse, and part of providing quality service while supporting your employees is staying up to date on the advancements of the industry.

Historically, technology and innovation have not gained instant acceptance and respect in the fire service. If you go back in time, there was resistance to motorized fire apparatus. Things designed to protect firefighters rarely received universal acceptance from the start. Self-contained breathing apparatus, bunker pants, protective hoods, and improvements to helmets all had their detractors, and it took time to gain mainstream acceptance. Just looking at these few products, we know that questions always arise and proper vetting of any innovation or technology is warranted. In the end, departments need to know when the right time to change is and when leadership is needed to press for the necessary change.

Technology is intended to make the job easier and better—as the commercials for products that are changed often promote, “new and improved.” There are some great innovations that have resulted from technology. Think about the tools you use. They are lighter and operate on battery power. The advantages are great. They take less energy to use, and you don’t need to carry gallons of various mixtures of gasoline. The training and practice needed to engage the tool are decreased. Anyone who has been part of training new recruits how to start a gasoline-powered tool can attest to the challenges, especially those recruits with no previous experience. Now they can plug in the battery and begin the operation. It can be embarrassing to watch someone struggle to get a gasoline tool started during an emergency. For other tools, such as those used for extrication, there are no hydraulic lines that can get in the way. There seems to be no downside.

But, as with everything, there are obstacles to change including cost, possible skepticism, and a general resistance to change. There may be legitimate questions, such as will there be sufficient power to do the job?

While much of the technological advances are intended for improvements in the delivery of service and becoming more efficient and effective, there are products and services that are for the health and welfare of firefighters. And, one could argue, healthy and well firefighters will provide better service for the residents, taxpayers, and community. Those in the fire service must look at developments that are in their best interests while assisting in job performance. We have seen this with personal protective equipment (PPE). PPE has helped firefighters while increasing capabilities. Departments, for the most part, spend time and resources to investigate products to ascertain the best fit for their organization. There are always pockets of resistance but, generally, the interests of the firefighters take precedence.

This approach can work for other emerging products. Properly evaluate them with an open mind to determine their value. There are always those people who say “no” as their first response to any innovation. They cite unproven or purely speculative reasons without having a serious discussion. “I won’t be able to feel the heat on my ears!” Maybe a better approach would be to look at the product and see if it has the potential to help and then consider changes that need to be made in training and preparation. Another suggestion would be for leaders to approach the product evaluation in a logical manner and make the best, but not necessarily popular, decision for the organization and its people.

Look at the areas that can be of benefit to firefighters. There are products on the market and being developed that can improve communications, locate firefighters, and provide an alternate source of air when in a bind. Maybe all of these don’t fit in every organization, but fire departments have the responsibility to investigate appropriately and see if there will be a benefit. Don’t start from “no” or “it costs too much.” Look at the end benefit, and evaluate based on what could be expected from the use of the product.

Technology and innovations are essential in advancing the capabilities of the fire service. There is no doubt that the workload is increasing, both in run volume and the variety of services expected to be delivered. While adequate staffing is absolutely essential, getting products that enhance capabilities, improve efficiencies, and maintain effectiveness is critical to the mission. Proper evaluation and an open mind will help determine which products will help and which will gather dust. Take advantage of technology while also avoiding trends and the need to appear progressive by doing your homework.

RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA) and chief (ret.) of the White Lake 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 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.

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