Factors to Consider Before Implementing New Technologies

Firefighter Life Safety Initiative No. 8: “Utilize available technology wherever it can produce higher levels of health and safety.”

There’s no doubt that technological advances within the fire service have enhanced our ability to conduct operations in a safer and more efficient manner. Technological advances can be seen in just about everything, from personnel PPE to apparatus design to fireground applications of information technology. In fact, technology is developing at such a rapid pace that the IAFC has created a Technology Council that provides for a communication exchange among stakeholders on an assortment of technologies (www.iafc.org/TechCouncil).

Though productive and potentially lifesaving, this influx of technology must be carefully managed to ensure that the appropriate technology is selected for any given application–and that this technology is consistent with the capabilities of the organization looking to acquire it. With that in mind, before acquiring and deploying any new technological equipment, the organization must:

  • Conduct a needs assessment;
  • Consider application and deployment issues; and
  • Understand the limitations of technology.

Let’s review each in detail.

Needs Assessment
Prior to the purchase of a technology, ask yourself whether it’s appropriate for your organization. Does the product meet an existing need or will it simply become an addition to a shelf of abandoned items? In these economic times, it’s imperative that executive fire officers be fiscally responsible, and that means not spending money on devices that will go unused.

A device may seem like a perfect solution to a problem, but may in fact create more burdens in the process. For example, technologies are emerging that measure biofeedback of firefighters engaged in suppression activities. This is great information and may alert safety/rehab officers and incident commanders (ICs) of a potential stress-related injury before it can become an issue. This is no doubt a boon for life safety. However, the agency must have a plan for managing this type of technology to prevent it from becoming a burden–simply one more thing that must be managed on the already understaffed fireground. Who’s going to monitor this information and from where? What parameters will be used to remove firefighters from service?

Application & Deployment
The ability of the technology to save lives depends on the firefighter’s ability to learn the technology and use it within its limitations. We simply can’t have firefighters using a technology in a manner inconsistent with its intent, beyond its limitations or without proper training and competency on that technology.

A significant consideration prior to the purchase of any technology is the training associated with the product. Not only should initial training and demonstrations of competency be performed upon acquisition of the new device, but ongoing training and competency audits should be performed periodically as well.

Does this sound familiar? A department purchases a multi-gas detector and places it on the engine. It’s seldom used and when pressed into service, firefighters have either forgotten how to use the device or discover that it hasn’t been calibrated according to manufacturer’s recommendations. So here’s an expensive, potentially lifesaving piece of equipment that instantly becomes a liability.

Another consideration: Technology can provide firefighters with a false sense of security. Consider the use of a carbon monoxide (CO) monitor following a fire. Departments may use levels such as 35 ppm as benchmarks of safety for SCBA removal. However, assessing only CO levels as a determination for safe atmospheres is inadequate, as studies confirm other gases are present and may be equally or more harmful. Many departments now have policies in place to maintain SCBA during overhaul.

I would be remiss if I did not also include a discussion on intentional equipment sabotage. Apparatus are now manufactured with safety features to ensure safety during motion or while backing. Though irresponsible, some people have applied countermeasures to these safety devices–measures that can be as intricate as the devices themselves–in order to avoid the perceived nuisance of seatbelt use or having a spotter while backing. Individuals who purposefully sabotage equipment put themselves, the public and fellow firefighters at great risk.

Technology Failures
Finally, firefighters should make sure they don’t over-rely on technology, and be able to adapt if their technology fails. If not guarded against, we can create a dependence on technology that hinders good practice. For example, many departments use on-board computers to enhance response capability. These units offer maps, best route suggestions, road closure information–the variables are limitless. With a computer crutch close at hand, there’s little incentive for firefighters to learn the streets. If a device fails, time may be lost looking through maps.

Firefighter locator devices are also being developed to assist rapid-intervention teams (RITs). Once these devices become a staple in the RIT toolbox, we must ensure that members stay proficient in manual search techniques lest a device fails. We must also ensure that firefighters don’t rationalize the presence of such devices as another safety net and therefore place themselves at greater risk.

Final Words
Technology has its place in the modern fire service. But firefighters must be prudent and identify the product need, use the product within its intended purpose, with proficiency, and be prepared for the unlikely event of a product failure.

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