Computers: They Are the “Real World”

Computers: They Are the “Real World”

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EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK

Did you notice what Time magazine did back in January? For over half a century Time has started off the new year by naming a Man of the Year, recognizing the person who has done more than anyone else to shape our lives in the past 12 months.

This time the announcement was something of a shocker because the editors decided that nothing influenced the daily progress of life more than … computers, particularly the still-new, low-cost microcomputers.

So instead of Man of the Year, Time paid tribute to a Machine of the Year.

But Time’s announcement, by itself, is not what is really important here. Rather, the important thing is that computers are indeed having significant impact on our lives. And that is the opportunity and challenge for the fire service.

Fire Engineering has a good record, I think, for covering many of the ways computers can help the fire service. In 1982, for example, we led off with a two-part article on microcomputers. We’ve reported on multimillion-dollar computer-aided dispatch systems and also on microcomputer systems costing no more than a few thousand. See, that’s the thing about microcomputers: they’re affordable by almost every department, even the smallest. For volunteer departments we described how a fund-raising mailing list could be better managed with a micro. The article on computer-aided instruction broke new ground in the fire service, as did the articles on networking of computers and management flow.

Not that every reader has taken to these newfangled gadgets. One chief wrote: “I think lots of us in the real world have little use for computer-aided dispatch and other like articles. Such articles rank far down on the list of be-nice-to-have items.”

Is he right? Or does the Time magazine action prove that computers are now very much part of “the real world?” To be sure, the overwhelming majority of comments support more coverage of computers. What’s your opinion?

I think I know why some people will resist opening up to computers – in the beginning they can make you feel ignorant and foolish. I felt that way recently when I started using a new word processing program on my computer and had to learn new “rules” for that program. With the old way, I was in command. With the new way, I made some mistakes and felt frustrated. It was easier to stick with the old way. But in the long term (about a week) the new way was worth the trouble, and it will be for you, too.

Considering our history, it seems inevitable that we will later look back on the debate about the role of computers in the fire service the same way we now look back on the debate about the value of gasoline-powered pumpers versus horse-drawn steam engines.

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