Technology, Change And The Cheese

"The only true constant is change." Technologically, the fire service has never seen so many changes in such a short time. Each year, there are new developments in fire apparatus design, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), personal alert safety system (PASS) devices, thermal image cameras, atmospheric monitoring devices, defibrillators, protective clothing, radio communications and so much more.

Computer software development is influencing the fire service in areas of records management, public education, accountability, training and fireground operations. The Internet is creating new applications, furnishing news at an unbelievable rate and providing access to many downloadable reports/information.

The combined effect of technology and information can be overwhelming. It is time that emergency service leaders recognize the amount of change and the rate at which it is occurring.

In the earliest days of the fire service, bucket brigades were the basic method of extinguishing fire. Later, hand-pumping devices made way for another level of attack, followed by steam fire engines and the beloved horses. Finally, the fire service (embraced the motorized apparatus.

These changes did not come easy, but they did prevail. Other areas of development that made the fire service confront change included protective clothing and SCBA. Changing from the macho image of the "smoke eater" was a major paradigm shift. Today, the rate and number of changes are happening so quickly that it is difficult to keep up, much less accept them.

Since technology is so much a part of the change factor, it is important to share valuable resources that may help others recognize, understand and embrace change. Several months ago, my wife told me of a book titled Who Moved My Cheese? by Dr. Kenneth Blanchard, author of The One Minute Manager. The book looks at change and how people perceive change. In a humorous way it lets readers see themselves in the change process. It can be read in one sitting, in about 40 minutes.

The book is a story about two mice and two "little people." and tells about their quest to go through a maze to find their "cheese." Without giving too much away, the mice are named Sniff and Scurry and the two little people are called Hem and Haw.

Fundamentally, the story tells of how these characters look for their cheese, how their cheese disappears and what happens when the cheese is gone. This story was used as an analogy for explaining internal changes within our department and providing insight as to how we could all know when the cheese was moving and "move with the cheese" together. What will you do if your cheese is gone?

The importance of this story is what it teaches about change. Here are the abbreviated lessons that are highlighted in the book with a fire service twist by substituting "fire" for "cheese."

  • "The fire keeps moving." Anticipate changes in fire behavior.
  • "Get ready and anticipate that it will move, get ahead of the fire." Observe the change.
  • "Recheck the fire spread often, so you know where its traveling." Adapt quickly.
  • "Sooner you realize the new fire direction and its intensity, you can deal with the fire effectively." Change.
  • "Move with the fire, try new techniques to combat it." Give the new methods a chance; be positive. Enjoy!
  • "Relish the quest, the new challenges and the new accomplishments!" Be ready to quickly repeat the steps again and again.
  • "The fire will keep moving and it will never stop." Given technological changes, new training methods, safety developments - the environment and techniques will continue to evolve.

Imagine the paradigm shift when motorized fire apparatus replaced horses. Firefighters who drove the horses soon found their role (as they knew it) obsolete. The "old fire" was gone. They had lost great companions and the tradition would never be the same.

But there was a "new fire" with new challenges. Motorized apparatus would require that someone be able to operate it and be trained to drive us into a new era of firefighting. Before any firefighter could enjoy the challenge of the new fire, he or she had to realize that the old methods of fighting fire were no longer effective, yet new firefighting methods offered new opportunities.

When computers started becoming so much a part of the fire service and our younger firefighters were more educated about them, there was a real resistance to using them. I remember being told not so long ago by some fire service leaders that the Internet was a fad and in a year or so it would disappear. This year marked the highest number of emergency service websites at over 10,000. There are many "new fires" with challenges and opportunities.

Resistance to change is natural and it's time to understand the complexities and effects on emergency service personnel. Another invaluable "change tool" is a class offered at the National Fire Academy. Strategic Management of Change (SMOC) was introduced several years ago and is one of the required classes for the Executive Fire Officer Program (EFOP). SMOC provides a change-management model to assist senior fire executives who must adapt to rapid technological and functional changes related to the delivery of fire and emergency services. Methodologies include organizational simulation and case study.

Communication is the best tool to help remove fear and encourage others to ask questions and become more involved. Effective communication is not easy and is time consuming, but is the most important ingredient to positively influence change. Personnel are the most important aspect of every organization; invest this essential time in them.

Charles Werner, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 23-year veteran and deputy chief of the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department. He serves as the technology chair for the State Fire Chiefs Association of Virginia and is a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Communications/Technology Task Force. Werner also is webmaster for the National Fire Service Incident Management Consortium and a member of the web team.