Y2K & Beyond: A Fire Service Vision

The new millennium will surely present many new and exciting technological advances.

Looking toward the distant future, we may ask ourselves, "Will the need for fire departments be as significant as it is today?" New systems with precise detection combined with new non-toxic suppression agents may be fully automated. Imagine that fire detection and suppression occur so quickly that no one ever knows there is a problem, until an alarm indicates where the problem was detected and corrected. When a situation escalates to a larger scale due to a technology glitch, a salvage crew is dispatched to clean up any remaining mess - everything is done without human intervention.

While this is not a realistic vision today, it may be in the future sooner than one might expect. By the year 2025, the fire service could envision Internet-automated fire monitoring and extinguishing systems, thermal image displays within every breathing apparatus facepiece and heads-up displays (HUDs) on the inside windows of fire apparatus. The HUDs will display maps, pre-fire drawings and other emergency-related information while units are responding to an incident. Self-activated foam application systems that automatically protect homes during wildfires may be required by code for homes within an urban interface zone.

Fire apparatus improvements will include radar monitoring that will alert if someone is in the vicinity prior to vehicle movement. Geographical positioning software (GPS) will become a part of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards and be directly linked to computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems. And watch for the continued development of "smart" protective clothing that keeps firefighters cool while at the same time monitoring vital life signs and breathing air supply and transmitting this to a monitoring officer for purposes of safety and accountability.

Communications equipment will become smaller and more versatile. These radio devices will connect each firefighter into a communications network that will allow communication with any radio user on an incident scene. The transmissions will serve as verbal audio and GPS locator signaling. Incident reports and administrative records will be maintained by voice-recognition software programs that eliminate the need to do any manual data entry. Fire stations will also be equipped with state of art physical fitness equipment. Uniforms will be interfaced with new heart-monitoring devices that can detect and provide early warning of a suspected heart anomaly. EMS equipment will be enhanced so that a device can diagnose a patient's vital signs and any abnormal body function by a simple handheld scanner.

Training will take today's simulations and place them into three-dimensional holographic chambers to provide realistic interactive incident command scenarios. The National Fire Academy (NFA) will become a much broader forum and will provide online programs that will include interactive teleconferences involving fire and EMS providers from around the world. The desired goal of technology will be to make every emergency service provider more effective by improving performance, reducing loss of life, reducing property damage and preventing line-of-duty deaths.

As this millennium comes to a close, let's look at technology that is already moving us in a positive direction to meet challenges of today and the future. A short list of highlighted items includes technology-based training, incident simulations, EMS pen-based reporting, new foam agents for wildfire applications, electronic accountability systems, intelligent staffing software solutions, thermal imaging technology and intelligent traffic-signaling systems.

In the area of training, fire and EMS agencies are beginning to take advantage of information technology. Use of the Internet, CD-reinforced training and distance-learning programs need to become the norm rather than the exception to enhance our existing methods of instruction. Fire and EMS station designs already include wiring for computer internet/intranet systems. This promotes the idea of turning dormitories into individual study areas.

Given the continued challenges of time constraints that are placed on the emergency services community, it will become even more necessary to maximize the time available to train personnel. This idea in no way implies movement away from individual instructional interaction nor the elimination of practical skills training. Rather, the suggestion is that new technology will be used to support and enhance the other training methodology already in use.

The key thought regarding the application of technology to training is that it is only a vehicle that provides the right information, in a user-friendly format, in such a way as to enhance learning for the end user. The hardest work is insuring that the information content is accurate, appropriate and maintained. Once the content is in place, the best medium must be utilized to maximize delivery.

Public education will also have to address programs that can be based on CD, Internet or other interactive media that will reinforce lessons taught in the school. Interactive public education programs like "FIRE ED," produced by the Melbourne, Australia, Metropolitan Fire Brigade (www.mfbb.vic.gov.au), provide a CD-based program that challenges children with a number of fun multimedia activities. Fire education will have to meet the new expectations of the world's computer-literate children.

During a Technology Symposium held in January 1999 by the Phoenix Fire Department, fire personnel explained that they conduct incident simulation exercises weekly with staff members. Phoenix is also developing an interactive simulation exercise that could be used in the promotion process. This idea assures that the simulation assessment applies the same rules, scenarios and evaluation criteria to each participant. In a computer lab, the incident simulations could be applied simultaneously to all promotional applicants so as to prevent information from being unintentionally shared with others.

The NFA's Executive Fire Officer Program (EFOP) is an initiative of the academy designed to provide senior officers with a broad perspective on various facets of fire and emergency services administration. One goal of the EFOP is to increase the body of knowledge in the area of emergency services and making it available to fire and EMS personnel. Applied Research Papers written by EFOP students as well as other resource information are made available over the Internet via the NFA Learning Resource Center (http://www.usfa.fema.gov/lrc).

Via NFIRS 5.0 (www.usfa.fema.gov/ nfdc/nfirs.htm) the National Fire Incident Reporting System will begin to be more prominent in the incident reporting arena. This reporting mechanism will provide a much clearer picture of what the fire service is actually doing as opposed to the older limited versions. Other software enhancements that provide record keeping for training, daily management, inventory, pre-fire planning and other management needs are also becoming more available.

Task-specific software is beginning to offer assistance to meet the growing complexity of daily logistical staffing. In most fire departments, duties and expectations have exceeded the traditional responsibilities and require a more precise way of tracking staff activities to insure that positions are filled quickly and efficiently.

Intelligent traffic-signaling systems are important to improve response times and safety while responding to emergency incidents. Devices that are activated by special lights are becoming more popular. Other traffic systems that are siren activated have also made their way into many communities.

One inhibiting factor for purchasing such systems is that they can become very expensive. Federal grant money is one funding alternative that has been successful to purchase systems that also improve mass transit movement. A partnership between public safety and public service can make the difference.

Thermal imaging cameras (TICs) are quickly becoming the newest tools of "necessity." The acceptance of the new technology and price reductions will help drive widespread implementation of thermal cameras. There are a number of thermal imaging cameras on the market. Some departments are already moving in the direction of putting thermal imagers on each apparatus.

While the main function of TICs is to "see through smoke" in structure fires, they also have found their way into other areas such as wildfire responses. In areas subject to severe wildfires, TICs are mounted on firefighting vehicles to let the driver see roads and/or exit routes through heavy smoke conditions. Thermal imaging cameras are also finding new uses in hazardous materials situations as they can identify the amount of liquid product within a container.

Information access, benchmarking and statistical information are all areas where technology can broaden its audience through the World Wide Web and e-mail. This would also make our efforts at comparative analysis more effective and far reaching. How many times have you sent or received surveys requesting information about the same thing? It only makes sense to standardize information content and make it available on a department's website. More important, the community will look to the web to find out information about fire safety, programs offered and more.

A website address (URL) has become the norm for businesses and emergency service organizations alike. A fire department website has become an expectation rather than a luxury. Some departments now identify their website addresses (URL) on their fire apparatus. The Firehouse® Magazine website, www.Firehouse.com, offers an exclusive inside look at the latest news stories, features and interactive message forums.

Technology will no doubt provide many opportunities for improved service, but the success of the emergency service community will depend on its ability to stay informed on the latest developments. Every firefighter in the United States should send a letter to their congressional representatives requesting additional and direct funding to fire departments similar to that of its law enforcement counterpart. This type of action will help shape the future of the fire service. Assistance in contacting congressional representatives can be received through the Congressional Fire Services Institute (www.cfsi.org) at 202-371-1277. Enhancing awareness and increasing funds will have an overwhelming impact on the success of the 2025 fire service vision.

The first annual Virginia Fire & EMS Technology Symposium will take place in Charlottesville, VA, on Dec. 12, 1999, and is being hosted by the Charlottesville Fire Department; Firehouse.com; the Southeastern Fire Chiefs Association; the University of Virginia; Cornerstone Networks; the Virginia Department of Fire Programs; and the Virginia Fire Service Council.

Symposium topics include: developing the ultimate emergency service website; fire incident simulations; computer/CD-based training; thermal imaging camera technology; intelligent staffing software; EMS pen-based reporting; wildfire foam applications with a demonstration; virtual reality modeling applications for the fire service; and more.

A free brochure with details about the symposium may be obtained by contacting the Charlottesville Fire Department at (804) 970-3240, visiting the department's website (www.cfdonline.org) or e-mailing a request to cwerner@firehouse.com.

Charles L. Werner, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 23-year veteran of the fire service. He is currently a battalion chief with the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department's Division of Training, Technology and Community Affairs. Werner serves as a technical advisor in the areas of computers/Internet and has been instrumental in the launching of Firehouse Online.