When asked to report on the ten most significant advances in electronic technology in emergency response over the last ten years, I jumped at the opportunity. Little did I know that narrowing the field of items to ten would be so difficult. Looking back over the last ten years, I found it unbelievable how much the field of emergency response has progressed. So, how do all of these advancements affect the Emergency Response Team member operating on the scene of an emergency? Let's examine the impacts of technology implementation.
Heading the list and having the most significant impact on the emergency responder are technological advancements in the computer industry. In fact, most of the top ten items may be traced back to computer technology.
Today's computer and software technology has brought the information age to emergency scene operations. It is difficult to find an emergency incident where computers are not a staple item. The application of computer technology at the scene seems endless. Once limited to static files, systems in use at the scene today may monitor everything from plant status to personnel telemetry and management. Information provided in real-time is priceless to those in charge of managing an incident. Not only may information be obtained by the use of these automated systems, but information may be exchanged and routed to the correct recipients, who possibly may be located a distance from the incident itself. It appears the only limitation to the use of automated data systems is the imagination of theuser.
Few advancements have contributed to emergency responder safety as significantly as automated fire ground management. For many years, the tools of choice for incident management were pen and paper. Today, advancements in hardware and software have allowed incident management personnel to have unprecedented access to vital information allowing personnel to make more informed decisions, resulting in improved safety. Remember, "Better made decisions equal improved safety". Today's incidents are managed by personnel utilizing a local area network where the command and staff positions are linked together to share information and communicate objectives and needs. Advances have allowed safety and operations personnel the ability to monitor the location of personnel through global positioning systems (GPS) and/or radio frequency triangulation (RFT). Emergency responders in the hot zone may be monitored for air supply, medical status, and may even provide personnel outside of the hot zone data and optical information from the heart of the incident. This information may be displayed on monitors at various locations throughout the scene to provide a more accurate evaluation of scene factors.
The implementation of thermal imaging technology has altered scene operations by allowing emergency response personnel the ability to analyze the incident characteristics by removing some of the obstacles to vision. Thermal imaging not only allows improved visibility in smoke filled environments, but also may be used to detect hidden fire and the thermal characteristics of a hazardous material release. The results are undisputable; improvements in personnel safety, victim viability, exposure reduction, and property/environmental conservation may all be attributed to the use of thermal imaging.
Advances in communication technology have vastly increased the capability for the emergency responder to communicate with others and have ensured a more reliable communication path. Technology allows for radio inter-operability, where communication may be reliably established between all responders and agencies involved in the incident. Not only are responders able to communicate by voice, the inter-operability systems have provisions for radio frequency data exchange which facilitates computerized scene management and communication. Many systems today are able to simultaneously transmit and receive voice, data, and optical images. Combined with the improvements in cell phone technology and reliability, the incident management staff has many different effective communication media choices.
The amount of information available to emergency responders via the World Wide Web has exploded. Product characteristics are available with only a few mouse clicks; satellite images are obtainable with just a couple more clicks; immediate weather conditions are only a click or two away. Combine access to the World Wide Web with the many advancements in communication equipment, scene management has never been afforded such an opportunity for efficient and effective decision-making and communication.
Advancements in robotic technology have made it possible for many emergency response organizations to utilize un-manned equipment to perform extremely dangerous operations. Un-manned mobile fire fighting monitors may be sent into areas where personnel would not be able to reach safely. Additionally un-manned vehicles are used to sample hazardous atmospheres and handle explosive devices. Many of these vehicles are equipped to provide real-time data, video, and sound from the dangerous location as well as perform functions such as suppression agent delivery or explosive device removal. All of these functions may be supervised and controlled from a distant, safe location, whereby drastically reducing the risk to personnel.
Improvement in scene detection and sampling devices has aided emergency response personnel in determining safe zones and product identification. Many of the common detection and analytical devices used on the scene today were only available in sophisticated laboratories just a few years ago. The use of these sampling and monitoring tools have allowed responders to accurately assess scene conditions and rapidly take effective action to mitigate the incident.
Advances in electronic technology have greatly impacted fire service training and instruction. Not only has the emergency response equipment become more complicated requiring more complex instruction, but advances in media have given instructors extensive flexibility delivery choices. Emergency response personnel today may complete web based courses that once were limited to classrooms. The combination of voice, video, and data allows the classroom to encompass any facility with the equipment available. While not a substitute for hands-on training, emergency response personnel have the opportunity to obtain the knowledge-based material in a user friendly media. For the team member who wishes to pursue an emergency response degree, many options are available in the distance learning/web environment.
One overlooked technology used to improve emergency response is that of research and development (R & D). It is hard to find an area that is not extensively influenced by R & D. Everything from personal protective equipment (PPE) to human factors research impact the way emergency response personnel approach a situation. Situational modeling, employing a number of methodologies, allows everyone from the incident commander to the nozzle person to the rescuer the ability to perform one essential function: "Predict what the situation will do so that you may respond appropriately to that condition in the future". Remember - "The only way to successfully handle any incident is to remain one step ahead of the problem."
All emergency responders are tasked with three main goals: protect people, protect property, and protect the environment. Improvements in technology are allowing responders to more safely, effectively, and efficiently handle those situation presented to them. So where will technology for emergency be in another ten years? Look to your imagination... The dreams of today may become the reality of tomorrow.
Michael Southerly, MA, is a Program Development Specialist with the University of Nevada, Reno Fire Science Academy, and a faculty member of the Fire Science Management Program at Southern Illinois University and an Emergency Response and Management Consultant.