Ballam: Technology Phobia? Get Over It!

May 7, 2014
Keeping up with technology isn't easy, but it shouldn't be scary. Too many people in the fire service have technology phobias and the need to move past them.

Why is it that so many firefighters have an aversion to electronics? If they could get an apparatus with a cable throttle, they’d do it in a heartbeat. Yet, they’ll park the fire truck and jump in to their pickups with satellite navigation systems built into the dash boards, fire up the electronic fuel injection system, back out of the lot using the rear-mount camera system, and engage the Bluetooth connected to the cell phone in their pocket to call home without a second thought.

It just seems silly to me – the double standard.

Fire apparatus today has a lot of high tech electronics from radar equipped bumper to camera fitted bumper, tire sensors to remote controlled deck gun.

Walking the show floor at Fire Department Instructors’ Conference (FDIC) in Indianapolis, I stopped dead in my tracks when I heard a vendor say; “Electronics are here to stay. We’ve got to get over our phobias – even old guys like me.”

How true.

We’ve all heard the argument – lives depend on the equipment we use so it’s got to work all the time without fail and that’s true. There are inherent risks in firefighting and we shouldn’t have to worry about our apparatus failing in the middle of the firefight.

But think about it for a minute. Fire equipment and apparatus has evolved over the decades and century. There’s no doubt there were a few firefighters who objected to trading in the horse-drawn steamers for motorized apparatus. The arguments were no different than those today and those firefighters believed their arguments were valid.

There were undoubtedly those who balked at the switch from gasoline driven apparatus to diesel, probably arguing diesels are hard to start and they wouldn’t produce the RPMs needed to drive the pumps.

How about those early consignors to John Bean high pressure pumps borrowed from the agriculture industry? That one had some issues, but look at how ultra-high pressure pumps are the latest rage.

Foam systems evolved from eductors in 5-gallon buckets, to around the pump systems, to injection systems to compressed air foam systems (CAFS).

Year after year, decade after decade the industry comes up with new stuff and it’s about time we start embracing it. A lot of the folks involved with the innovation are firefighters themselves and wouldn’t send out stuff that would kill us. It would be bad for business.

So, what’s wrong with wireless remote aerial controls? How about electric valves? Anti-lock brakes and electronic stability controls? We all know at least a few people who need that kind of technology.

LED lights? Multiplex wiring? I have heard of more than one fire department that won’t accept apparatus with multiplex systems. They want everything hardwired. They say it’s easier to maintain or to find shorts and electrical faults. I am not convinced of that as apparatus with on-board diagnostic systems can be diagnosed with laptop computers, even remotely with an internet connection.

What about airbags and occupant protection system? Some might say more stuff to break. Let’s hope they’re not the ones in an apparatus crash.

Anyone who is less than 25 years old is indigenous to technology – they’ve grown up with joy sticks and wireless video controllers in their hands. They don’t even know what a cable driven throttle is. Everything in their lives has been push button or automatic, or automated. The internet is as natural as their own brain waves – nothing to even think about there.

The problem is, the guys with the white hats usually have white hair under them and the gray matter inside that head is not as “fresh” as the kids who are coming up in the ranks. And it’s the white hats who are making decisions about what technology gets adopted into the department. And we haven’t even talked about all the technology available in the loose equipment and personal protective equipment.

While I am not saying the old timers need to step aside, they need to open their minds a bit. They need not to foster the adage the fire service has deservedly earned “two hundred years of tradition unencumbered by progress.”

The apparatus purchased today will be antique, literally, when most of it is taken out of service. There’s no value in specifying dated technology that perpetuates the antiquity, tradition, or whatever you want to call it, into the future.

Gold leaf?  There are decals for that now, but that may be pushing things a little too far. Some traditions are worth keeping -- like a real Federal Q siren instead of these new-fangled electronic whizz bang things.

Enough said.

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