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My fondest memories involve riding the back step of a ladder truck, with my 3/4 boots pulled up, hanging on with one arm while holding the other guy who was still trying to button up. We were a couple of the lucky ones—not lucky because we got to ride the back step, but lucky because we didn’t die doing it, the misfortune of plenty of others before us … and after us.

Reviewing change

So many things have changed in my short 35 years in this service. Now, while many of my friends can remember tin helmets and rubber coats, my roots are in the 1980s, not the 1950s or earlier. Personal computers were JUST becoming reality, smartphones were still a futuristic fantasy, and we wouldn’t DARE get caught wearing those salad-bowl-looking fire helmets!

Today, personal computers seem to be everywhere, even in our fire trucks and ambulances. In fact, the smartphones on your hip today are 10 times more powerful than some personal computers. Smartwatches are now commonplace, and some people carry two or three “smart” devices. (I carry ONE—typing this article on it right now!)

Drones aren’t just for missiles anymore. Fire/EMS departments use their modern-day cousins (unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAVs) for training or scene documentation, with bomb squads, etc.

Firefighters and paramedics are wearing personal air-monitoring systems, carrying individual thermal imagers, and have more information at their fingertips than can possibly be imagined (maybe too much). Electronics have replaced much of the “thinking and feeling” firefighters used to train on for hours, something I submit that’s both good and bad. Good because we’re maximizing the use of technology and making better, more informed use of our firefighters’ time. Bad because the tactile senses and the common sense of life lessons are rarely taught or observed, because “electronics can do it better.” I’m not so sure about that.

Firefighting and medical standards have taken on a dizzying myriad of all-hazard complexities requiring significantly more commitment. Even with those extra standards, I am at a loss for words as to how and why some states continue to allow people to engage in firefighting operations with little or no discernible training.

Residential sprinkler systems are extinguishing incipient fires before they can burn down the house, and residential misting systems are on the horizon.

The issue of residential sprinklers is a mission we should ALL be embracing. Unfortunately, the building industry and other special interest lobbies are constantly mounting backdoor challenges and amendments where jurisdictions HAVE been successful, and blocking new attempts at every turn. Prince George’s County’s 25-year experience with residential sprinklers has proven resoundingly that sprinklers save lives and reduce property loss. Zero fire fatalities and an average $9,000 loss for sprinkler activation versus an average $60,000 loss where there are no sprinklers—you do the math!

Fire engines cost a half million dollars or more, with ladder trucks crossing a million.

The digital and electronic advances have bypassed many of our in-station firefighters’ capabilities to maintain (much like spark plugs of “old”). The technologies have also outpaced the capacity of our facility infrastructures to keep up.

EMS now accounts for a large percentage of fire department business. While it’s true that call volume has increased, the increase in fire department integration with EMS is a result of two distinct factors: 1) Improved fire protection and prevention systems—a GREAT problem to have for our communities! and 2) changes in community expectations and acceptance. Add the Affordable Care Act changes to hospital-based patient care and outcomes, and EMS will clearly lead the wave of the future.

What about you?

So where are you on the spectrum of technology and keeping pace with fire service trends? Where is your department?

I recently attended a meeting where the chair lamented in his report that he just “wanted things to be the way they were 42 years ago” when he joined the fire service. We all yearn for the simplicities of yesteryear; however, that era has evolved into a technically complex mission, one with which we either evolve … or get left behind.

Firefighting itself is much more than just putting water on fire. The belief that the profession is simply a blue-collar job is antiquated, too. Whether it is understanding fire science, code application, grants management, million dollar purchasing, personnel issues, legal concerns, the ACA … this is NOT your grandfather’s fire department.

Remember the column that addressed the differences among Leaders, Managers, Followers and Slugs? Those true leaders have a forward-looking and thinking vision for the future. That, in no way, has anything to do with the “way things were 42 years ago” (an era where we were just coming out of black-and-white TVs, with the only antenna choice being a set of rabbit ears, and when “bag-phones” were being thought about, for the elite).

Trying to regress in this business will cost lives and property. Any suggestion that it’s a volunteer/union issue and should go away is tired hyperbole. This is DEFINITELY fighting an old battle in a new world. Considering the ever-evolving threat environment, can you imagine our military using the same technology and theories they used 42 years ago? Now apply that logic to the fire service.

Look to the future

Become a forward-thinker and learner. Ensure that you’re making truly good faith efforts to meet all of the standards, and don’t let anyone just jump on and ride. Take classes in personnel management, and don’t be afraid to discipline those who need it. Leaders need to be more concerned about implementing vision and showing the path forward than being friends. You want a friend? Get a dog. You want a great fire department? Be a leader!

Ask yourself, are you still trying to hold onto the back step? It’s past time to let go. The cutting edge awaits you.

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