Evaluating Technology

By Richard Marinucci

My brother is the only person I know who does not own a cell phone. He says he doesn’t want one and doesn’t need one. Even though most people cite the convenience of having a cell phone, my brother looks at it as an inconvenience. He does not want to be tied to a phone or be interrupted when he is doing something else. If you want to talk to him, call his house and leave a message and he will get back to you when it is convenient. His lifestyle does not seem to be adversely affected by his decision.

Conversely, my adult children all have the latest cell phones and do not have land lines. They like the instant communications with the phone calls, texts, and e-mails. They also know if the phone rings, it is for them. They are connected 24/7 and their phones take precedence-even over in-person communications. They will interrupt a conversation with me to answer their phone or a text. Some may consider this rude, like me, but they think it is normal.

Whether or not one has a cell phone is his own personal choice, and I am not here to make any value judgments. It seems that some can’t live without their phones and others won’t live with them. In some ways, this is what all technology is about. Regarding fire departments, there are some that are always on the leading edge, impatient to a fault to adopt the latest and greatest device that promises to make the job easier, faster, and safer. Others continue with what has always seemed to work, either consciously making that decision or being prohibited from doing so because of budgetary issues.

Faster than Ever

There is no doubt that technological changes occur at a faster pace than ever before. As such, fire departments are inundated with information on new products that promise to make the job easier, faster, safer, and generally better. They also promise to save time. Now if they are supposed to save time, how come those who use the newer products are busier than ever? The point here is that not all new technological developments are necessarily applicable to everyone. Keeping up with the Joneses is not a reason to embrace technology. It must be evaluated based on the entire package of the benefits and disadvantages including the cost, time savings, ease of use, practicality, financial benefits, required training, and acceptance by those who will be using it.

During my career, I have met with salespeople who had new products that were essential to what I was doing many times. They always paint a rosy picture designed to tempt me. More often than not, there were some flaws with the products, although these flaws may not have affected the benefits they offered. Like all good salespeople, they try to get an “on-the-spot” decision. Rarely do I give one, either because of my instincts or the fact that what they are offering requires additional approval.

Get Help

When looking at “new and improved,” consider some of the things that should help you make a decision. First and foremost, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. I can recall discussions where I reached a point of disbelief and could not contain myself when dealing with an individual. This may not always be the best approach, but it was sometimes helpful at reducing return visits!

Beyond your instincts, use your network-those who have more knowledge and understanding of particular products and those who use the product. For example there are many computer advances. Some have proven to be beneficial to many. Others have been added “fluff,” either not delivering what was promised or offering useless enhancements. If you have access to IT personnel, that is great, and these people are good to know. They spend all of their time learning more about these types of technological advances. They also are usually not fire service personnel. As such, they view the world differently and can offer candid opinions.

There are also people in the fire service who are better at staying current with technological advances. They seem to have a special interest in new things and take the effort to learn about products. If you don’t have the interest, time, or aptitude, connect with others that do. There must be some mutual exchange with these people so that you are not always perceived as a “taker.” Offer other information that you may have about other topics in exchange. Regardless, those in the fire service are almost always willing to share.

There are other resources available. Obviously, trade magazines offer information, both through articles and advertisements. Although nothing should be taken in its totality, researching information from various sources can provide a much clearer picture. Trade shows also provide opportunities. You have the chance to talk not only directly to vendors for specific information but also to other fire service professionals who may be able to provide some insight.

Technology itself also offers opportunities to get opinions. The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Knowledgenet has an open forum that allows participants to ask questions of others on the site. There are other similar regional or state systems. Seek these out and participate. Answer when you have information to add to the discussion and you will find that others will do the same for you.

Don’t Overthink

You may have had someone tell you on occasion that there is “no need to reinvent the wheel.” This is intended to let you know that what you need may already be available or someone may have already done the ground work. But if you look at all the wheels available today since its invention, you certainly have a lot of choices. This can make things more confusing or complex when trying to figure out what is best for your organization. There will be differences in cost, quality, ease of use, required training, and even an organization’s willingness to accept. As an old timer, I find myself sometimes resistant just on principle because I think the old way of doing something is automatically better.

The point of this discussion is two-fold. First, there are so many things available and they are changing so quickly that it can be very challenging to keep up. The second point is that not all technological advances are needed by every organization. You need to look at products and services objectively to determine if the cost, time, and efficiencies really improve effectiveness enough to justify the investment.

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.

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