Fire Service Technology: Looking Ahead

July 1, 2000
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 Challenges Faced by the Fire Service, the executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) notes, "Given the way computers and other technology has evolved in the past, it is difficult to predict through current trends where technology will take us in the future. Technology is developing in a non-linear fashion, which means the fire service must continually reassess the way it delivers its products and services. Frequent assessment and course corrections must be built in the way we do business. To cope with the rate of change, the way we plan has to change and 'long-range planning' will look no more than three years into the future."

This article will explore the idea of technology awareness programs and highlight specific applications where technology has shown or shows promise to improve the way in which emergency service agencies perform.

Emerging Technologies

In December 1999, the first Virginia Fire and EMS Technology Symposium let fire service representatives see emerging technologies and share their thoughts on how departments were making use of their technology.

The most important revelation that came out of the symposium was that there is a need to conduct technology awareness symposiums regionally throughout the United States. This can be accomplished through fire service/vendor partnerships. This type of presentation becomes a win-win situation for both the fire service representatives and vendors.

The Technology Symposium focused the vendors into a 10-minute window of "wow" factor, which let emergency service representatives receive the "awareness quotient." In return, vendors have a captured audience to which they can give their "best shot." Exhibit areas were established where attendees could visit any of the vendors that interested them. Vendor PowerPoint presentations were provided to all attendees on CD-ROM so that attendees could review any of the presentations or use them to sell the concept or desired equipment to decision makers in their communities. This Technology Symposium was modeled after the "Change Symposiums" held in Phoenix. Unfortunately, most people in the United States cannot travel to Arizona and/or Virginia.

Incident command simulation software shows much promise in the way of training our present and future incident commanders. During the Technology Symposium, Fairfax City, VA, Battalion Chief Joe Bailey and Albemarle County, VA, Captain John Oprandy demonstrated several options that would allow for customized and easily produced simulations. The concept combines incident simulation with a "real" practical "twist." This takes a building that has been acquired for a practical burn session and first simulates incident command situations using computer software:

Day 1 - The computerized simulation lets incident commanders test their abilities on a projected digital image of the acquired structure in a variety of situations with the ability to try different strategies and without risk or danger.

Day 2 - Incident command is now practiced in conjunction with an actual "burn" of the acquired structure. The activities and communications are then a demonstration of the previous day's simulation training. This way of training incident commanders, both present and future, is important to the successful deployment of forces as well as the safety of firefighters and citizens.

The Fresno, CA, Police Department is using a simulation called "Patrol Sim," an open-seated station that simulates driving conditions and pursuit situations. The station has pre-set and programmable scenarios that give officers experiential learning before having to face it in real life.

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

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.

The Palm VII also has the ability to send and receive e-mail where the Palm Net service is present. There is a monthly fee for the Palm Net Service. Other fire service applications are being developed in the area of EMS reporting, fire information collection, occupancy inspections, etc.

"Outside The Box"

Directing our thoughts beyond the fire service, technology is continually making us "think outside the box." Imagine that an incident commander could track and record every movement/action for each individual firefighter/fire apparatus at the incident scene. That's right, every movement in the "fire battlespace" recorded in sequence as it occurred and the results that followed. The potential data collected and analyzed could reveal some of the most significant findings yet. Such an analysis could identify the best time to apply positive pressure ventilation, dramatically demonstrate the effectiveness of Class A foam, etc.

This concept is what the ASCIET 2000, or All Service Combat Identification Evaluation Team Exercise, is all about. The ASCIET 2000 exercise utilizes sophisticated computer equipment to digitally record and analyze every action/engagement on the battlefield and provides immediate feedback to combat participants.

This U.S. Department of Defense exercise will bring together 70 current combat identification systems and 15 government-sponsored emerging technologies to be evaluated and was taking place in Savannah, GA, and surrounding areas from Feb. 28 through March 10. The military has always been a leader in development of emerging technologies that will enhance our national security.

Thermal imaging cameras, Geographic Information Systems and the Global Positioning System (GPS) are all examples of what the fire service has implemented from past military initiatives.

Today, there is still a struggle between the pros and cons of the Internet and other computer technology. Generally speaking, there is a varied thought process between the generations. This is true of the general population and within the fire service.

While many older people see many of these concepts as destructive and somewhat intimidating, a younger crowd has come to expect such change and versatility and see these as constructive enhancements to their lives. One thing is certain: we are all on the same journey into the future.

The future is always only a day away and yet there is a mind-boggling speed with which we are seeing technology explode. The emergency services community, like the corporate world, must take steps to stay abreast of these changes. This will permit the fire service to explore new concepts, some of which are outlined in this article.

Many initiatives are underway to help the fire service keep up with the pace of technology.

In 1999, the State Fire Chiefs Association of Virginia established a Technology Team. This team is charged with the development of its website ( as well as helping keep its members "technology aware." Today, it progressively boasts being the leading source of emergency service news and information in Virginia. Included are prompt updates of legislative issues, product recalls and other related news.

Technology Task Force

At the January 2000 board meeting, IAFC President Luther Fincher announced the establishment of an ICHIEFS Communications Technology Task Force under the leadership of IAFC Second Vice President John M. Buckman. This task force, among other things, will examine the communications technology systems that are available to the ICHIEFS organization to communicate with the leadership of the fire service on a national, regional, and local level.

"Information is the key to action today and at the ICHIEFS we recognize our ability to communicate current information is important to our members," Buckman said. "I believe that we need to move rapidly on this project with energetic and qualified people who will work to put the ICHIEFS organization at the front of the communications technology systems."

Technology, the Internet and computers will become even more a part of our daily lives. Emerging technologies such as "infocharms" - small wearable computers similar to a firefighter's badge, are being used to exchange information between attendees and vendors at trade shows without ever doing anything. Perhaps this infocharm technology will be the personal alert safety system (PASS) device of the future.

A simple point - every fire service organization will be affected by new technology and every organization can begin now to take steps to prepare for these changes. Developing local, regional and national technology teams can help fire departments plan implementation strategies and establish important technology networks. The fire service should strongly promote the idea of regional technology awareness programs that will promote emerging technologies.

Earlier in this article, Garry Briese advises that the fire service must continually review the way it delivers its products and services. While fire departments cannot extinguish fires over the Internet (at least not yet), they can begin to rethink how it provides information, citizen input, requests for service, public education programs, career recruitment, etc. - the new wave of service, "Fire Department E-Services."

Charles L. Werner, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a battalion chief with the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department. He is the Technology Chair for the State Fire Chiefs Association of Virginia, Communications/Technical Coordinator for the National Fire Academy Alumni Association and is a member of the Web Team.

About the Author

Charles Werner

CHARLES WERNER, who is a Firehouse contributing editor, is a 45-year veteran of public safety. He served with the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department for 37 years, serving the past 10 years as chief. Following retirement, Werner served for two years as senior adviser and acting deputy state coordinator for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. He has chaired: DHS SAFECOM Executive Committee; IAFC Technology Council; National Information Sharing Consortium; and DHS/White House Incident Management Information Sharing SubCommittee. Werner currently serves as the director of DroneResponders Public Safety Alliance, chair of the National Council on Public Safety UAS and chair of the Virginia Secure Commonwealth UAS Sub Panel.

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