To some of us in the fire service, the speed at which technological advances are introduced can create great challenges.
Organizations are expected to “be up” on their profession and know of new products that will make them more efficient and effective and are often “evaluated” by the public as to their use of technology. For example, I remember a citizen once complaining about a response time, saying that a local pizza delivery system could locate his house faster than we could with our technology! My only answer was that the pizzeria had more money to invest in such a system than I did with his precious tax dollars. Regardless, while technology offers great promise, many considerations affect implementation in fire departments.
One way to look at technology is to consider modern cell phones. Everybody has one (except my brother, who may be the last holdout). They offer so much service that I am not sure anyone can use all the technology that is in the device. For someone like me, I need to make and receive calls, text occasionally, and look at a calendar. Everything else is window dressing that I am not likely to use. In contrast, my wife uses so much more of her phone-and even she is only scratching the surface of its capabilities. Regardless of our usage, we get all the options on the phone even if we don’t need them. The cost is the same for everything even if we don’t care if it is on the device.
Technology for many in the fire service is sort of like this. There are many products with many options that can do more things than most organizations can benefit from. In some cases, the costs are the same for the extras, but in some instances there is an added charge. When looking at products and technology, departments should take a good look at what is being offered, what the cost is, and whether or not the item will really improve the delivery of service and/or save time.
Speaking of saving time, a firefighter in my department a while ago used to tell me he didn’t have time to do much because the “time-saving device” he was using was taking up all his time as he tried to figure out how it worked! This was a facetious way to let me know that not all things work out initially as planned and not all people have the same acumen for using technology. In general, the younger generation, having grown up with technology, seems to adapt quicker and embrace technological advances easier than the older generation. This is not always the case and there are exceptions, but this is probably a good assessment. As such, departments should know their personnel and their willingness and ability to take on the challenges of using new methods and equipment.
Departments need to do their homework when considering the acquisition of new technology. Most sales pitches will claim that the product will solve some problem, will be easy to use, and will save time and money. Often this is the case but not without some investment and commitment. Advances involving technology have certainly made some things easier but only if the end users have the skills and knowledge to take advantage of the product. They need some aptitude but also will require training. When evaluating new products, consider the amount of time that will be needed to train personnel and who will be the trainer-a representative of the product or a member of your organization. Proper training not only gets personnel to use new devices the correct way but also can stimulate them to look at other means of becoming more efficient and effective with technology.
Another challenge with technology is deciding when to purchase. Some of the advances and improvements occur so quickly that the item could be outdated almost before you start using it. The new and better could be released next month. Then you are stuck with the older version. But, don’t worry about that. You get what you can when you need it and then deal with what you have. It was once explained to me that it is comparable to waiting for a ride. Maybe the next vehicle will be faster and more comfortable, but if your goal is to get someplace, you might not want to wait. You take what you have so you know what you are capable of doing. The same goes for technology. You benefit as soon as you start, and you needn’t fret about what might happen.
Do you really need the technology? That is a question that you need to ask. You need to have a plan and look for equipment and advances that feed into that plan. You don’t need things just because they look cool or your neighbor has them. They must improve your operation. I recall a “new” development from a few years ago. What it was is irrelevant now. But, many departments were buying it looking for a quick fix. Unfortunately, the device did not live up to its expectations so it was never used. Many departments ended up with some brand new devices for their next “garage” sale.
Consider maintenance and upgrades and any potential additional user fees. This can add to the cost, sometimes significantly. Evaluate the entire package to see if the return on investment is adequate for you to justify the expense. You could spend more money to “fix” an issue than what the problem cost you. Sometimes this is a situation where you can wait. Possibly the cost of the technology will come down. Early on, cell phones (or car phones, as they were known) were quite costly and considered a luxury. Now they are affordable (though with added services, they can still be expensive) and considered a necessity by many.
There are countless technological advances that promise to improve services provided by fire departments. Every organization does not need everything, and not all things are pertinent. Managers and administrators need a system to adequately evaluate new advances to determine if they are right for the organization. There is much to consider, including not only the initial cost but also any needed training (time and expense) and ongoing expenses. Further, some technology requires periodic upgrades to continue operating efficiently and effectively. Today’s society is extremely reliant on technology and, as such, it often seems like the easiest decision is to take full advantage of whatever promises to be the latest and greatest. The fire service can benefit greatly, but not all aspects of the job require additional technological advances. Sometimes the “old ways” of doing things are just fine!
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.