Is the Fire Service Becoming Too Technology Dependent?

Technology is the application of knowledge; it deals with how we put our thoughts into action. Technology combines learned skills and techniques used in the interaction of life and the environment, engineering them into a more efficient process that can be easily reproduced. Defining what we think of as technology is only relevant if we outline a time frame. The technology of today will become outdated and antiquated in the not-so-distant future.

Evolution of Technology

Three million years ago, the technology developed by our first ancestors consisted of basic stone hand tools. About one million years ago, the technology of early humans was centered on the use and control of fire; and only about 5,000 years ago, at the end of the Neolithic period, use of metal tools became widespread. Other historic applications of technology that we take for granted as some of the most basic aspects of human evolution include cooking, wearing clothes, speech and language, and the wheel. Each of these advancements was developed through a gradual process that marks a major turning point in the evolution of our species.

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More Modern Times

In more modern times, the printing press, the telegraph, and the telephone morphed into what has become the Internet and global network of data and wireless communications. These technological advancements have minimized physical and geographic barriers to human interaction and afford us with the capability to communicate instantaneously and on a global scale. This is very apparent when we look at the speed with which photos, videos, and breaking news can become viral.

On a daily basis, I’m reminded of my personal reliance on technology, starting every morning with my iPhone in hand and checking e-mails and my social media feeds, often even before my alarm goes off. During the day, if I’m even one room away from my phone, I get a bit of agita—I don’t think I’ve been more than 20 feet from my phone in about five years. Facebook and Instagram now have a feature to alert you when you’ve reached a preset daily usage limit.

Technology in the Fire Service

Technology in the fire service has come a long way from the days of the bucket brigade, bugles, and horse-drawn steam engines. At the time, these were all state of the art, and my best guess would be that there were quite a few who opposed this progress (perhaps in the name of tradition). It’s natural to be weary of what we don’t understand, and yet it’s quite easy to see with 20/20 hindsight when something new doesn’t work out—especially when someone else was steering the ship.

Putting the past aside, I’d argue that we are perhaps at a new crossroads—a paradigm shift—in the history of the American fire service, where our reliance on electronics and modern technology is now at the core of our profession. In the past 15 years, as technology has become increasingly intertwined with our everyday lives, so, too, has the fire service moved through a similar transition from just tolerating new technology to relying on it.

Toleration to Reliance?

In the mid- to late-1800s, the most exciting communications equipment in service was the Gamewell box on the street corner, the public’s direct line of communication with the fire department. These simple and reliable telegraph systems are still in use around the country and are often the quickest means of alerting the department to a fire. As soon as the hook is pulled, station bells begin to ring and punch registers print out the box number—without delay. So then, with all of our modern communications technology, do we have any idea of how long it takes for the fire department to receive an alarm that’s called in through 911? In most cases, minutes.

In the 1940s, two-way radios migrated into the fire service from our brothers in blue—the police department. Twenty years ago, laptops made their way onto the rigs to provide as much prearrival information as possible. Fifteen years ago, portable global positioning system (GPS) units became readily available and affordable, putting turn-by-turn directions at our fingertips. Six years ago, iPads made it to the front seat and provided further accessibility of incident data, maps, and preplans to smaller departments with tighter budgets, without the need for expensive computer-assisted dispatch integrations. Soon, each firefighter may be wirelessly connected to an interactive display at the command post streaming live data on firefighter accountability, location, and air supply. Personnel accountability reports (PAR) will be conducted and acknowledged at the simple push of a button.

The progression from nonverbal communication (bells/registers) to verbal (mobile/portable radios) is circling back around to the nonverbal (iPads/video/interactive displays).

Personal Alert Safety Systems (PASS). Under the proposed National Fire Protection Association 1982, Standard on Personal Alert Safety Systems (PASS), 2018 ed., equipment manufacturers may be required to include radio frequency (RF) transmitting PASS devices that work on a multihop and multipath mesh network (each pack communicates with multiple other interconnected packs to extend the overall range and reliability of the signal). When a firefighter becomes lost or trapped, activation of the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) PASS can communicate the emergent message to the incident commander, who will receive the distress call on a monitor.

SCBA. A postincident analysis will be able to include a thorough review of the pneumatic data logged in the SCBA “black box” event data recorder as required under the proposed NFPA 1981, Standard on Open-Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) for Emergency Services, 2018 ed. (currently only electronic data is being logged). The logged data will include initial activation information, 30-second interval data, pressure milestones (75%, 50%, 33%), and even the user’s breathing rate. It’s not far-fetched to look further ahead and anticipate the inclusion of activity trackers, heart rate monitors, temperature sensors, and numerous other data points (my Apple watch can already do most of that)—all in the name of safety.

Thermal imaging cameras (TICs). Twenty years ago, TICs were the size of a football, weighed five pounds, and cost nearly $20,000. Advancements and improvements have shrunk the cameras to the size of a small candy bar, and they weigh just 10 ounces. Some models of TICs allow hands-free use, similar to a virtual reality setup heads-up display. Prices are affordable, costing between $1,000 and $1,500. The goal of many departments is to put a TIC into the hand (or mask) of every firefighter entering an immediately dangerous to life or health environment.

Computers. Another example of the changing times is that the two-tone voice pager, a reliable staple of the volunteer fire service since the 1960s, is now being replaced by cell phone texts and audio alerts. I know many volunteers who rely solely on their phones for alerting, regardless of the potential delay factor. How many of us have been notified of a job through social media even before the tones dropped? Apparatus now have integrated computers that control nearly every aspect of their operation from driving to pumping, aerial placement, and even remote controls and video feeds for master stream deployment. We have backup cameras, dash cams, and seat belt warning systems to track where members are sitting and if they are properly restrained. Preplans, hydrant maps, and turn-by-turn directions aren’t kept in binders anymore; they are accessed through responder apps. Drones are being used for a bird’s-eye view of the incident scene. Electronic patient care reporting (ePCR) is now the standard for emergency medical services in many states and jurisdictions.

Can Technology Become Too Much? Is There a Backup Plan?

As someone who grew up with technology, I love this stuff. As I am a fire officer, these new tools should make my life easier and give me peace of mind, as the safety and accountability of my crew are top priorities. But I pose this question: When does technology become too much?

Is it when our driving and communi-cations are being distracted by all of the safety alerts and warning lights built into the apparatus? What happens when the technology fails—such as when the batteries die?

I admit it. I’m so used to having a TIC with me that I feel lost without it. What about when a screen freezes at a critical moment? Can all of these devices be hacked by an internal or external source with malicious intent? What if there is an electromagnetic pulse or even just a lightning strike that knocks out sensitive electronics and communications?

How will these electronics handle environmental extremes (cold/moisture/dust) and fire conditions? We don’t operate only on beautiful sunny days. What happens when the CAD or GPS has a glitch and sends you across town in the wrong direction? How will you get to the incident location without the GPS you’ve come to rely on?

I know I’m terrible with street names. Are procedures in place to manually or mechanically override the technology? Is your staff trained on those actions and ready to implement them at a moment’s notice? Is there a Continuity of Operations plan in place to ensure the execution of mission-critical functions on the fireground—or even just in the firehouse?

Who’s in Control?

So, who’s managing whom? Or what’s managing whom? Are we controlling our technology and using it to our advantage? Or is the technology controlling us, leaving us vulnerable when the systems go down? These are all “predictable surprises” that should be thought through and dealt with now. We live in an era where we are expected to take an all-hazards approach to our preparedness. If you think you’re prepared, would you feel the same if you took every device with a microchip out of the firehouse and off the rig?

There’s no question that the fire service has been subjected to a tremendous amount of pressure over the past decade or so. There is certainly more to come as the Internet of Things and wireless technology transform the way firefighters and emergency services personnel receive, disseminate, and use information. We now live in a world where your refrigerator can do your grocery shopping for you. The rapid shift in technology over the past decade has created an entirely new world in which today’s firefighter operates internally in the department as well as out in the community. We are constantly being filmed by the public and criticized on social media for our actions. We are, and should be, held to a higher standard.

Firefighting Still a Simple Task: Don’t Abandon “Basics”

As the world around us becomes more complicated and technology becomes even more embedded into each aspect of our lives, firefighting, at its core, remains a simple task. The old adage still rings true: Put the wet stuff on the red stuff and everything gets better. Big fire, big water. It’s still a very physical job—humping hose, pulling ceilings, throwing ladders. Let’s continue to push the “back to basics” training mentality, building operational muscle memory through cycles of sets and reps. You can’t work out just one day a year and expect to stay in shape. Train right and train often. Throw yourself training “curveballs” (no radios, no TICs, no GPS, no preplan, and so on). No two responses will be exactly the same.

Ensure effective fireground communications—verbal, nonverbal, and visual. Make sure every member has a portable radio; it may have to be their “partner” in a pinch, but plan for it not working. Face-to-face is often the best means of communication; it allows you to pick up on the subtle cues of human behavior and expression.

One of my instructors once said, “To be aware is to be alive.” Share as much information as you can; don’t be the only one who knows something. Write things down; otherwise you will forget—guaranteed. Keep cheat sheets in the front seat of the rig with your size-up acronyms. It’s not about memorizing information; it’s about deploying it accurately in the heat of the moment.

Remember, technology is a tool to assist you. Don’t rely on it to handle the most basic elements of this profession. Learn, understand, and implement technology, but be wary of totally relying on it. Everything works fine up until the time it doesn’t.

 

Evan Kutzin, a firefighter since 2001, is the deputy chief and former training officer of the Old Tappan (NJ) Fire Department. He has been a fire officer since 2007 and has served in several volunteer and career capacities for fire and EMS combination departments in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He is a certified fire instructor, fire inspector, and EMT-B. He has a master’s degree in administrative science with a concentration in global security and terrorism studies from Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.

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