In the private sector, organizations evaluate technology based on its ability to affect the bottom line-that is, looking at enhancements in technology to determine whether or not the operation improves so profits increase. On the government side, profit and loss issues do not necessarily drive decision making.
Do not misunderstand this to mean that those in the public sector should not consider cost when looking at new technologies. Any potential benefit evaluation will weigh the costs against the projected service improvements.
To put it another way, government exists for the greater good and mostly provides services that do not generate a profit. Fire departments are organized to offer a particular level of service that matches the desires of their communities. An elected body representing the entire population usually establishes the service expectation. From this perspective, a view of technology should consider the added value it offers when providing the services within the responsibilities of the agency.
The Technology Pitch
At times, I have been asked to look at some very specific technology advancements to see if there is an application for the fire service and ultimately a market there. In some cases, businesses making products for the private sector were seeking input to ascertain if they could expand their businesses. Other products were for the emergency service. In either case, there would have to be a benefit for the fire service and a realistic cost.
On occasion, those extremely competent with the technology offer the initial sales pitches. They make it look easy, and it can be very enticing because the products seem so simple and so perfect. As part of the demonstration, they often imply that the products can do almost anything. Sometimes I have found flaws with this. First, I rarely can operate whatever it is that they are demonstrating as well as the presenters can. Second, most of the salespeople will say their products will do most anything with the hope of getting a sale. This does not always match what the product developers can do.
Technology does offer solutions to many problems and allows individuals and organizations to improve productivity. Other advances have allowed fire departments to offer additional services that add value to the community. There are so many possibilities that organizations with limited resources must show due diligence when evaluating advances in technology so that they make the right choices and avoid mistakes. It is not good for any organization to have a bunch of so-called “must haves” end up in storage. To take full advantage of emerging technologies, organizations must know as much as possible about the costs required to acquire the new technology and have time to train and for ongoing maintenance, upkeep, and upgrading as needed.
New technology relies on early adopters and adapters to try out the next great product. These people are very important because providers need departments willing to put new innovations to the test. Those who do so must be willing to accept the fact that the product may need some “tweaking.”
If you are one of those who raises his hand to be first in line, you accept the risk that the technology might not provide the intended outcomes or perform as described or promised. There are advantages as well as disadvantages to being first. You should know what potential gains you will realize and what may happen if the technology doesn’t quite materialize the way it was described.
Many examples of this surround computer software. There is a reason there are so many versions-the kinks are being worked out. Being first is not always bad. But if you elect to do so, you need to work with companies and people you trust and with whom you have a sound relationship. You need to know that there will be changes and you want a company that will stand behind its product. When you have this assurance, you can move forward with more confidence.
As you evaluate new technology, you need to look at the overall cost, which includes expenses beyond the purchase price. Will there be any routine maintenance required or annual licensing fees? What will it take to get your personnel ready to use the technology? If there is a training component, you need to know who will offer it and if there is an expense. You also need to know if there will be a cost for your personnel. If they can get the required training while on duty, then the expense is not significant-although you still need to consider the time. If overtime or paid-on-call staff requires pay, then you should factor this into your decision making.
Once you have the list of advantages and disadvantages of acquiring new technology, you can balance that against the overall cost. At this point, you can make a decision. Quite simply, ask if the benefits justify the entire cost. If there is a gain in proficiency or a service enhancement, then the chances of making a positive decision should be better. Again, it is important to remember that with government, potential profit, at least in the traditional sense, is not a significant factor. And although “cheaper” and “doing more with less” are popular mantras, do not forget potential service improvement as a driving force in the decision-making process.
Something to consider regarding technology is your organization’s readiness to accept change. Make no mistake-new developments will mean that things are not always done the same way. I recall a firefighter who used to lament that he was taking twice as long to complete a project on his time-saving device-a computer! Clearly he was not ready to use the new and improved resources. Like anything else that occurs within a fire department, you need to consider your culture and your personnel’s preparedness to accept changes.
The temptation to jump on board with the latest developments that promise to make things better is strong when dealing with technological advances. It has become a cultural expectation that every advancement should become part of your operation. Vendors seem legitimately surprised when they don’t see government using technology that is a routine part of their jobs or lifestyles.
There are champions for everything, and they promote their positions. It is easy to look at the improvements that technological developments offer and be ready to jump in with both feet. But, a prudent person will pause and evaluate. Due diligence is extremely important and must be done consciously before taking the step into the future. Consider all of your options, the pros and cons, and the costs when you decide if the next great invention will improve your operation. You don’t need a collection of quick decisions cluttering up your storage room!
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.