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Flashpoint: June 2014


June 2, 2014
By Peter Sells

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In May, we placed a new survey question on the firefightingincanada.com website, asking which innovation in fire protection technology has had the greatest positive impact on firefighter safety and effectiveness.

In May, we placed a new survey question on the firefightingincanada.com website, asking which innovation in fire protection technology has had the greatest positive impact on firefighter safety and effectiveness. The possible answers were:

  • sprinklers
  • bunker suits and flash hoods
  • SCBAs
  • thermal imaging cameras
  • class-A foam and compressed-air foam systems

This question needs to be asked every decade or so because new technologies are coming down the pike at a fast and furious pace. If we understand which innovations have made us safer, allowed us to penetrate deeper into burning structures, or increased our ability to extinguish fires efficiently, we can be better prepared to evaluate the potential effectiveness of new gadgets and gear.

New technology is always expensive at first, then drops in price as the market begins to accept the value proposition. Everett Rogers, a professor of communications studies at Iowa State University, categorized consumers of innovation in his book Diffusion of Innovations, first published in 1962. Rogers called the first group to buy into a new gadget “innovators,” and estimated that they make up just 2.5 per cent of the market. Innovators would have been the first to have bought computer projectors, for example – which were the size of a carry-on suitcase – for $17,000 when they were first available. Rogers’ second group of consumers is what he calls early adopters, the next 13.5 per cent of the market, who may not have the deepest of pockets but are still willing to shell out significant money to have the latest stuff.

Next are the early majority and late majority, each representing 34 per cent of the market, differentiated by the resources at their disposal and how long they are willing to wait before taking the plunge.

Rogers describes the final 16 per cent as laggards.

Although Rogers’ research focused not on organizations but on individual consumer – those who might have bought or not bought a colour TV in 1962 – his description of laggards as change-averse with a traditional focus sounded eerily familiar.

Who are the innovators and early adopters who have driven advances in fire protection technology? Hint – it is not fire. The military (particularly the United States and British forces), the mining/energy industry, the insurance industry, and, to a lesser extent, law enforcement have the kind of buying power that ignites the flames of change.

Fire services are, for the most part, in the late majority and laggard groups, waiting for others to take budget risks until the new toys are tried and true with all of the bugs worked out. This wait-and-see attitude is not a bad thing when you are tasked with spending meager municipal dollars to protect lives.

Looking at the innovations that were included in the survey, in roughly historical order, the first automatic sprinkler system was installed in 1874. The progressive adoption of sprinkler technology and its inclusion in codes continues to this day. It is impossible to estimate the number of firefighters who were spared injury by not having to fight fires that were extinguished or held in check by sprinklers over the last 140 years.

SCBA, which originated in the mining industry, were in regular use in the United Kingdom fire services as early as the 1950s. SCBA were certainly present in North America at that time, but I can say from personal experience that well into the 1980s, regular use at working fires was spotty. The first aerial apparatus to which I was assigned had four SCBA, and there were often five firefighters on the truck.

When bunker suits and flash hoods were being phased in, most of the older smoke-eaters were vehemently opposed to them; these firefighters were accustomed to using their senses – including the skin of their ears and the backs of their necks – to tell them when it was time to back out.

Which innovation came next depends on your department and region, but most likely you became familiar with class A foam before thermal imagers.

Go to firefightingincanada.com and take the survey. Once there are sufficient responses, I will revisit this topic online in my Flashpoint blog. Do I hear some firehall kitchen table debates?


Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. Peter is president of NivoNuvo Consulting, Inc, specializing in fire-service management. Contact him at peter.nivonuvo@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @NivoNuvo


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