In this edition’s Firelines, David Balding poses interesting and important questions about technology and its role in the fire service. One aspect he raises is whether members of the fire service will be willing to part with the hands-on nature of some tasks, like priming a pump and operating valves, in favour of automation. You can read his full column on the subject on page 18.
There are good reasons to debate technologies. On one hand, innovations create tremendous efficiencies, make work easier and even reduce the number of people required for a task. In other industries it has supplanted many jobs (while creating others of course). This is a subject of contention unto itself.
On the other hand, there is well-founded concern for the lose of tactile skills and muscle memory. I once read a true story of a plane crash where the pilots, so well entrenched in operating the airplane’s automated flying systems, were at a loss to do a simple correction when those systems failed and they were required to fly manually. The plane crashed, killing all aboard and leaving a black box of tragedy. Automation so rarely fails, yet it might. It could. It seems important to consider how we will practice the skills, retain that muscle memory, should we need it again if our technology fails. A self-driving car, properly done, will be far safer than humans behind the wheel. Humans don’t have the greatest track record on earth as drivers. But if that technology should have a glitch, is there ever a time, in a future of self-driving cars, when one will still need the skills to take over the wheel? I’m not sure. Instincts ere with a fear of losing skills in a trade-off, albeit in this instance overall safety being a very worthwhile trade-off.
The pandemic has shown us our reliance on the internet, and the astounding agility that was made possible in part because of it. In the fire service, technologies are creating a fascinating vision for the future. Electric fire trucks, virtual reality training, augmented reality systems that uses haptics to engage real sensory details like the smell of smoke and heat, pump automation, drones…the list could trail on and on. It’s a very cool time in technology for fire departments. Innovations in design are also continually taking everything from bunker gear to SCBAs to the next level.
Economics and efficiency often drive the adoption of technologies and these things are realities we all engage with. As technology continues to change the way things are done in the fire service, it will be important to consider skills gained and what may weaken other skills, if any. The pandemic has pushed even the most camera shy into the world of Zoom and this may foster more acceptance and interest in technologies, leaving the fire service with plenty to consider.
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