Author(s): Ken Willette. Published on January 2, 2018.

Tech Trap

As we increasingly rely on our gadgets for information, are fire safety professionals losing the ability to think for themselves?

During a recent visit with my five-year-old granddaughter, she asked if I wanted to play doctor. Expecting to be handed a play kit with a stethoscope and reflex hammer, I was dumbfounded when she instead handed me a small story book, then gripped another book with one hand and said “OK Pep, start typing.” As she began furiously tapping the book in her hand, I was puzzled. Then it clicked: she associates trips to the doctors with a person typing away on a tablet, not with stethoscopes, needles, and bandages. I couldn’t help but wonder: Is this focus on the digital a good thing?

This technological paradigm shift of course isn’t limited to hospitals. We see it everywhere, and we are more reliant on it than ever, including in fire and emergency services. It got me thinking about how our younger members view the job, and how that has changed since I started in the fire service. There is no doubt that technology has brought huge improvements in apparatus, protective gear, and tools used during emergency incidents, but there is another side to consider. Whether it’s a doctor spending an entire examination typing on a tablet and not making a personal connection to the patient, or a firefighter relying on “artificial intelligence” instead of having the skills to read a situation on the fireground, there can be unintended consequences to an over-reliance on technology that we must be careful to avoid.

Thermal imaging cameras (TIC) are a good example of technology’s benefit and risk to firefighters. These devices, which allow firefighters to see areas of heat through smoke and darkness, cost close to $20,000 when first introduced in the late 1980s, and most departments could only afford one. Today, TICs are much cheaper, have more capability, and are so small that they can be integrated into other equipment, such as a face mask or the regulator housing of a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). This means that every firefighter could have a TIC and the ability to “see” through smoke to locate victims and evaluate where fire may be hidden based on heat signatures within a room. Great, right? Maybe.

Just because technology can produce a new widget or enhance an existing tool doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for the firefighter. Does every firefighter need to have the thermal signature of the room displayed on their SCBA face piece? Will this take their focus off the task at hand, like a tablet might take a doctor’s focus away from carefully listening to a patient? What is the potential for information overload and overwhelming the firefighter’s ability to analyze the environment, evaluate the risk, and implement tactical actions? Does it create a generation of firefighters prone to relying on data from various devices instead of relying on their ability to read a situation?

Tools are essential to the fire service, and I have seen firsthand the potential and real-world impact they can have on saving lives. Firefighters today are safer and better equipped than ever before on the fireground, and can utilize technology with ease and confidence. There is much to be said for that. But there is also something to be said for skills such as assessing the fire and forecasting where it will travel next, understanding the conditions inside a room based on visual cues, and developing real-time intelligence by observing the impact of firefighter actions on the fire. I fear those essential skills are eroding as we put more faith in our gadgets.

Academy instructors and firehouse leaders need to be vigilant in ensuring these practical and lifesaving skills aren’t lost.

KEN WILLETTE is fire service segment director at NFPA.