Decision Making and Managing Disruptive Technology

We hear a lot of discussions today about technology; while we are listening to those discussions, technology is already impacting the fire service. The fire service simply reflects society, life, and the evolution of technology inside and outside of our industry’s mission and focus. As an outside technology becomes adopted by the public, we adapt our tactics to respond to the instances when that technology either malfunctions or comes together with another technology in an unsuspecting or unpredicted way.

Emerging technologies today are impacting a broad spectrum of how we deploy, communicate, and manage our resources during emergency and nonemergency events. We are seeing the impact of the iPhone and the corresponding technology within that device being brought into fire service communications and emergency scene management. FirstNet and other communication initiatives are embracing that emerging technology and securing platforms and systems to integrate those technologies into our existing management systems.

Often, technologies are disruptive. This is an interesting designation and one that we should look at closely. A recent example of disruptive technology is the cloud. The cloud enables people to store enormous amounts of data without having to maintain large, expensive, sophisticated equipment within the facility. The cloud also enables substantial amounts of data to be correlated and searched at much higher speeds, disrupting what were the existing or traditional business models around that equipment and the creation of products.

The self-driving car is a disruptive technology. Once it hits the mainstream, folks like cab drivers, Uber drivers, and truck drivers may be working in other industries, as their current form of work will be disrupted. That evolution is going to take a lot of twists and turns as it works itself through our dynamically complex human systems so the disruption is not one that is dangerous or potentially fatal.

The fire service is currently experiencing a disruptive technology commonly referred to as the drone. Drones are supplying footage to incident commanders (ICs) across the country in a wide variety of emergency situations. The upside of these drones is obvious: greater real-time awareness of the situation and the scope of an event – for example, the ability to have visual inspection over a greater area and much faster without putting live firefighters at risk in a dynamically changing environment such as a flood or wildfire.

The implementation and operation of a drone unit within the fire department have many facets. Organizations considering drones need to address several complicated and critically important issues. Among them are the legal requirements and limitations to drone usage governed by the Federal Aviation Administration. There is also a financial aspect of drone usage and emergency service that each organization must weigh prior to implementing or purchasing drone equipment.

Much has been written and much more will be written about implementing and managing drone programs from legal, operational, and organizational standpoints. Within all that discussion is an interesting and perhaps game-changing revelation. It comes to us from a study conducted in 2008 of eight ICs. It has always been widely assumed and accepted that by having more information available to us we will be able to make better decisions. But what about a disruptive technology like a drone? Will it help or hinder the decision-making process? We must ask that question first.

In 2008, a group of researchers selected eight ICs who all had stellar careers and outstanding operational competency and experience. The study was going to see how real-time video feedback from a drone would impact their decision making in a highly uncertain, dynamic, high-risk environment such as a structure fire. The study was prompted by feedback from military researchers who had coined the term “predator porn,” which, much like the fighter pilot term “situational awareness,” is a construct that has much broader meaning and implication than first appears.

The simulation was based on a real incident in a chemical facility in 1994. Information was supplied to the simulation participants in all the traditional ways such as radio transmissions, facility plans, hazardous material sheets, and the standard inputs one would receive commanding an event. Added to this normal stream of information was a live real-time view from a drone.

The result was that nearly all the ICs were unable to detect essential information and changes to the situation that were not visible in the footage being streamed from the drone. The current speculation is that all the ICs placed an inappropriately elevated level of importance on the confirmation of that information by the drone footage. If that information was not being captured by the drone, that information was weighed much less heavily or not at all. It appears all the ICs placed extremely high levels of trust on the drone footage and not as much on traditional information sources.

As we evaluate the study, we must ask several important questions. Was the drone footage such a novelty and, over time, will ICs adapt and be able to manage that input? How can we use this incredibly valuable tool going forward to our best advantage and not disadvantage? Does this disruptive technology call for or point to an emerging evolution from our current command concept to more of a “team of teams” concept?

The study provided evidence that real-time imaging can have an adverse effect on our ability to search for data and analyze situations. But that observation is outweighed by the benefit brought to us by this increased ability to assess the threats of a situation. The challenge we will overcome is how to integrate, manage, and evaluate this input. We will tame and use this disruption.

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