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Between Alarms: April 2011

If someone were to compare the fire service of today with the fire service of 20 years ago, the drastic changes in almost all regards would be obvious.

April 1, 2011
By Jesse Challoner

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If someone were to compare the fire service of today with the fire service of 20 years ago, the drastic changes in almost all regards would be obvious. Everything, from the design of and protection provided by present-day gear to the response guidelines and dispatching protocols we use now, is completely different from the equipment and practices of days gone by. Consider some of the equipment readily available to us now: mobile gas detectors, pack/firefighter locator technology, hydraulic tools with more speed and power, carbon-fibre breathing apparatuses with heads-up displays, early dispatch-due-to-alarm systems and advances in 911, just to name a few. As a culture of young firefighters, we sometimes don’t give a second thought to having these tools at our disposal; we take them for granted. Sure, all of these items help us do our jobs more safely and more efficiently, but if we stop to think about it, we might wonder how in the world the firefighters of past generations were able to perform so aptly without the advances in technology and the tools that we now enjoy.

One reason that older generations of firefighters were so proficient at their jobs was because they had solid foundations in the basics. By this, I mean that they spent time training and learning the fundamentals of fire fighting; the technology that we have today was obviously unavailable to them, so they became excellent at getting things done and finding a way with what they had. This way of thinking may be lost on newer generations because we have many tools that take much of the thinking out of our work.

The balance of having good basic ability and using technology to our advantage is a two-edged blade. On one hand, we want to ensure that everyone has an appropriate skill set and is able to function without the crutch of gadgets; at the same time, we value advances in technology and would be well served to put these tools in play to make our jobs more efficient and safer. The key to modern-day fire fighting is a hybrid of the basics and technology: we’re willing and able to use technology but we don’t necessarily need it. We must endeavour to possess the skill set to work in conditions in which technology is unavailable or fails. I’m certainly not suggesting that we toss out the multi-million dollar tools we have at our fingertips; rather, I am saying there is value in getting back to basics and training ourselves not to be reliant on technology.

To illustrate the point, consider the thermal imaging camera (TIC). The TIC has been a terrific addition to our toolboxes. It is versatile, compact, effective and, best of all, it helps firefighters work more safely – usually. The TIC can be used to locate hot spots during fire evolutions or overhaul, it can be used to find victims or downed firefighters, or it can help to find the origin of ignition. One of the favourite uses for the TIC is to guide firefighters though smoke-filled environments – deeper and further into large structures – until the battery dies. Oops. Now would be a great time to fall back on all that training bred into us at the academy or during training as junior firefighters. You know – left/right hand searches, using ropes to mark a path, following couplings of hoses. Hopefully we will be able to work our way out of this situation using traditional techniques, or – even better – by using the effective training that we all have so that we don’t get into this position in the first place.

I certainly see the value and advantages of having technology in our fire halls. I believe any tool that helps me be more efficient, faster, safer and, ultimately, that may provide a superior end result, definitely has a place in my toolbox. I also see the value in knowing how to get the job done without the new technology. I suppose it makes sense, then, that it’s only after we’ve learned to sweat and grind our way through tasks that we are able to start using the tools that do more of the work for us, while still allowing us to control the process. Ultimately, it’s great to have tools in the toolbox; the more we have at our disposal, the more quickly, safely and effectively we can execute tasks. But we do need to remember which tools are appropriate for certain jobs, and when and where technology is a help, and where and when it’s a hindrance.

Another invaluable tool that firefighters of older generations had, and that we all have at our disposal, is common sense. If someone is given all the technology in the world but can’t discern how or when to use it, the technology isn’t much good. But with the proper understanding of the hows and whys, that technology becomes very powerful and effective. Fortunately, we all possess the inherent common sense to know when advanced fire fighting tools will be beneficial and when it’s time to get dirty and use elbow grease instead. Of all the tools we use, our reasoning and thought processes are the most valuable.

It’s interesting to talk with firefighters who have been doing this job long enough to have seen the transition from the old-school styles using tricks of the trade, to the new wave of high-tech hardware. Most of these members have integrated the new tools into their repertoires, but the stories of how they used to do this or that should not fall on deaf ears: a time may come when the batteries die and you find yourself thankful for training in the art of basic, fundamental fire fighting.

Editor’s note: This is Jesse Challoner’s final Between Alarms column. CFF thanks Jesse for his insight and always entertaining and enlightening commentary over the last three years. We wish him well in his fire-service career!


Jesse Challoner is a firefighter/paramedic with Strathcona County Emergency Services in Alberta and an instructor at the Emergency Services Academy in Sherwood Park, Alta. Contact him at jchalloner@hotmail.com.


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