Fire Service Technology: Looking Ahead

Charles L. Werner explores ways in which new technology is improving the way emergency service agencies perform.


Technology continues to catapult every aspect of our lives forward at a pace never before experienced. Some technology leaders have named this period the "Big Bang of Technology" as technology explodes and unfolds in every aspect of our lives. In Garry Briese's overview, Identifying Future...


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The program is reported to be capable of training other emergency operators as well. Given the number of fatal driving accidents of emergency operators, this may have many benefits for the emergency service community.

Role of Communications

Communications is also a key field where technology plays a major role.

Every day, emergency service personnel are finding it more difficult to communicate with members of their communities. Many citizens of the United States are not able to speak fluent English. This causes a major hurdle for fire, police and rescue workers.

In Oakland, CA, police are working with a new "Voice Response Translator," a device that is a prototype being developed by the National Institute of Justice. An infinite number of phrases and languages can be programmed into the device. A police officer speaks a phrase or word into the unit and it translates to the language selected. Such a device holds many benefits for all emergency services.

Exciting news on the forefront of communications equipment and capability comes from the FDNY. This year, the FDNY is in the construction stages of its new Field Communications Unit (FCU). The new FCU will replace a 1985 mobile field unit. It is being built on a Freightliner FL106 chassis with an American LaFrance RescueMaster body.

The FCU's technology includes VHS logging recorders of every communication made on the FCU's telephones, radios, scanners, etc. Recorded information will be automatically fed to FCU printers. This allows for 20-channel simultaneous monitoring as well as after-the-incident review. In addition, the unit includes:

  • VHF and UHF two-way radios that are equipped with scan features, individual handsets/speakers and 800 mhz mobile radios.
  • Mobile Data Terminals (MDTs) with radios and printers.
  • Multi-band receivers/scanners.
  • Hardwired cellular telephones.
  • A fax machine with a dedicated cellular telephone line.
  • A personal computer including DVD-ROM and other essentials and VIRUS SCAN.
  • A closed-circuit TV and VCR system with telescoping mast.
  • A public address system.
  • Converter power supply and battery charger.
  • Portable radio batteries and chargers.

Handheld Computers

The proliferation of Palm devices is one of the newest trends in the fire service. These handheld computer devices provide the ability of doing much in the way of data entry in the field and have proven their benefits in the fire service.

After evaluating many possible plans, the Los Angeles Fire Department implemented a new Brush Inspection Program. This program makes use of the Palm Computing Platform installed on a portable and inexpensive Symbol SPT 1500 bar code scanning device.

Dale Thomson, director of systems for the fire department, explained that there are many technologies to choose from, but stated, "At some point, you simply have to pick your best choice." Thomson also pointed out that when developing such front-end programs it is important to plan for the means of merging into the existing data systems.

The program has automated what had been a lengthy and less effective means of data collection. Inspectors would work in the field and submit their information to data-entry staff in the office. The Palm technology produced a one-step field inspection/data collection program. The end result is an effective way of dealing with brush violations, automatically generated letters of compliance, a savings of $123,000 per year, and ultimately increased safety for citizens and firefighters.

In San Mateo, CA, real-time fire department emergencies can be brought directly to a Palm VII through the wireless Palm Net System. Palm Net service is available in over 200 large cities and availability can be determined by visiting www.palm.net.

The wireless technology on the Palm VII and similar devices accesses what are called "web clippings." These clippings are smaller than typical web pages and are in text format to keep download times at a minimum for both size and time. Applications for Palm VII are easily downloaded (most are free) and include such things as online dictionaries, UPS tracking, FedEx tracking, Ticketmaster, Starbucks Coffee and Map Quest, to name a few.