The mission of the fire service has grown significantly with the addition of more responsibilities and expectations, but the basis of delivery is to get the resources to the emergency in the moments that matter.
If you have great staffing and an inadequate response time, the outcome is usually not good. Conversely, quick response without proper personnel for the job will not result in the best solution. In many, if not most, departments, resource allocation has maxed out. By this I mean that staffing per vehicle, station locations, vehicles, and other costly items will not change for the positive very significantly. So, to improve service, organizations look to technology for advancement.
In today’s world, we have come to expect that there is a technological solution for almost everything. We may still be amazed at some of the capabilities of technology, the information we have at our fingertips, and how we can simplify some jobs. Initial releases of technology can be expensive, but as more versions are released the cost can be significantly reduced. The question often is not whether something can be done with technology but whether it will be affordable.
Many companies hold focus groups, retain subject matter experts, or simply do some research to determine the needs of a particular industry. If you have ever participated, you know that there is great potential to meet the needs of a job with technology. The question is not whether something can be developed but if there is funding to support the development. Depending on the cost, there has to be a forecast as to whether there will be a market that will translate into profits. Often, the initial production of technology can create a price point that is out of reach for many, if not most. Those old enough to remember recall days of mobile phones (probably more commonly known as car phones) that were only available to the rich. Obviously, the cost (along with mobility) came down so the masses could afford them. Cell phones are now considered essential.
Some technology is simple and affordable. In these cases, departments embrace and consider them part of the essentials of doing business. Others may not be so simple and might be relatively expensive but required as a basic of providing service or required by laws, regulations, or standards. In these cases, organizations have little choice but to use the technology. This is a good thing, as it removes budget constraints and politics as excuses for not embracing the technology. For example, departments need compliant self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) with the required technology to meet the standards. Departments placing firefighters in hazard zones need SCBA to do the basics of the job. Funds must be appropriated for purchase if there is to be a fire department that will put firefighters in immediately dangerous to life or health environments.
Other technologies would greatly benefit fire protection but are not used to their potential because of political and financial reasons. These include automatic sprinkler systems, automatic fire alarms, and firefighter air replenishment systems. There are champions of sprinkler systems who have had continual battles to enact code changes that would require sprinklers in residential buildings. There is no doubt this would have a positive effect on fire loss. Yet, there are those who offer opposition and use their political connections to oppose adoption. Regarding automatic fire alarms, one could argue that sending a signal automatically without the need for human intervention would speed response. Local smoke alarms have proven to be effective in saving lives. Connecting these devices to an automatic notification system would add to the value. In this case, cost to the building owner seems to be the show stopper. Firefighter air replenishing systems also cost the building owner, and there has been the political opposition to this technology that would greatly improve firefighting operations in high-rise buildings, big box stores, and tunnels. The fire service needs to develop better political tactics to change the outcomes. Fortunately, there are individuals passionate about this, and they keep trying.
Technology that is more internal to fire departments is more likely to be implemented in the short term. Organizations must know what technology is available, how it can be used, and if it is worth the cost to show a return on investment that improves service. Departments need to stay as current as possible with emerging and existing technology by reading trade journals, networking with other organizations, and attending trade shows. This sounds easy, but other job responsibilities can get in the way. Professionals in any industry find a way to stay on top of things, and the fire service should be no different.
Just because a technology exists does not mean it is right for every organization. Departments must evaluate to determine if service is improved, efficiencies are provided, and finances are available. You can have the neatest and coolest gadget, but if it doesn’t make the service better, it is just window dressing. If the technology is too difficult to use or requires too much training (by that I mean there is not enough time to stay competent), then the end users will not be able to maximize the benefit. And, of course, there must be sufficient funds for the purchase, maintenance, and training required. The costs of maintenance and training should not be minimized. Factor in ongoing expenses to evaluate the true cost/benefit.
One technological advancement to consider is drones. Think of the possibilities. Of course, there is a lot more to it than just picking up a new hobby. The costs can vary from very basic models to units that are more durable, usable, and effective. There are regulations to consider along with privacy issues. There will need to be training (obviously) and personnel to use the devices. There is ongoing maintenance. There is more to this than stopping by the hobby shop and picking up a drone. Before you commit the time and money, make sure it is right for your organization and it will enhance the service you provide to your community.
The fire service is reliant on technology and is constantly evaluating benefits vs. costs. In today’s world, new technology is coming faster and faster. Selecting the technology that will make a difference – that is, something that will lead to better service – is not always as obvious as it seems. Some developments seem like a magical answer but turn out to be less than what was promised. Other technology will definitely improve operations. Departments must take a critical look at everything before committing resources on the “next great product.” They must also look at technologies outside the organization that will improve the outcomes like sprinklers, automatic alarms, and firefighter air replenishing systems, which will require a political investment.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA). 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.