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AI is in thermal runaway

Artificial intelligence will require the fire service to make even more changes than the lithium-ion battery fire response crisis

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Artificial intelligence seems to be seeping into everything we see and do. While some may retort, “so what?,” I suspect that the more we research these examples of AI in everyday life, we will find significant challenges ahead for our emergency services, and not just the fire service.

Why is AI a concern?

AI is already deeply rooted in much of our lives whether you realize or like it or not. And if you haven’t used it in your personal life, it is only a matter of time before fire departments use AI in training, communications and administrative processes, apparatus orders, preplanning site visits, handling personnel matters and/or while operating on one of your fire or EMS scenes.

According to a recent survey by Accenture.com, companies and industries around the world are already using AI with mechanical automation. Finance, supply chain management, vehicle construction, test development, and analysis of vendor performance against established expectations are all in play. Here’s what the survey found about how businesses and their leadership are already weighing heavy consideration of AI:

  • 97% of executives said generative AI will transform their company and industry;
  • 67% of organizations plan to increase spending in technology and are prioritizing investments in data and AI;
  • 7 in 10 organizations have specific training programs planned for 2023 to ensure workers are prepared to use generative AI tools; and
  • 56% of respondents acknowledge data readiness is the top challenge to adopt AI.

Humans and critical-thinking

I will admit that the possibilities of process improvement and service delivery enhancement sound promising. I also fear that the predictive analysis AI has demonstrated will severely impact our own development of personal critical-thinking skills. Without significant regulation and oversight, it will be incumbent on each and every one of you to ensure that critical-thinking and process analysis continue to be part of what we foster among our members.

Some may scoff at my fear; however, I envision instances where the AI or mechanical interface breaks down, just like mechanical processes we know today. This either requires a human to pick up the ball and run with it, or in the absence of a human who can use critical-thinking skills, allows the incident to stagnate or run amok.

The fire service is full of situations where critical-thinking skills are just that – critical – to successful outcomes. Considering robotics, automatic fire suppression capabilities, autonomous vehicles and many other facets of what we do, it is clear that human interaction is being reduced – I’ll say compromised – daily. Some would say, “we’ll always need firefighters” for this or that. I suspect the reality is somewhere in the middle. Victim rescue? A robot. Driving the fire truck? Think driverless tractor-trailers on the road now! Building fires? Automatic sprinklers hold fires at bay every day!

There is significant room for robotic deployment in various fields where human fatigue and ergonomic challenges have previously challenged development capacity. Although many laugh off the fears that AI and robotic development will replace humans, it is already a fact in various vocations and processes.

There is room for AI in test development fire service training and in administrative processes across the board. AI could fully develop new procedures or memorandum and draft letters of back to citizen inquiries for your agency. While the possibilities seem literally limitless – personally I’m troubled by the AI equivalent of “thermal runaway” that I’m seeing.

Do you agree with the AI assistant?

Who’s responsible?

It’s easy to relate the deployment of AI to the rapid emergence of lithium-ion batteries – and our need to play catch-up. The seemingly untethered battery rollout has been listed as the cause of several high-profile multiple-fatality fires in the U.S. We have all seen the unfortunate and somewhat laughable attempts by fire departments to attempt extinguishing fires where thermal runaway has taken hold. Many companies have purported to have the product “answer” to the problem, and yet none has truly risen to the top, serving as the go-to product that every department could readily carry and deploy.

As it related to AI, the “thermal runaway” exists in the lack of governing body, certifying agency or universal rules to manage the acceleration of this technology. This has allowed countries around the world to roll out their own versions of AI definition, management and influence. It’s not too difficult to envision a pandemic-like spread of disinformation with an untethered AI that is allowed to fester.

Just recently, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted the first global resolution on AI. The resolution asks countries to safeguard human rights, protect personal data and monitor AI for risks. As a part of this agreement, the United States and the United Kingdom have agreed to work together on AI testing. Unfortunately, there’s a whole lot of untested AI already in development – AI that is already affecting our citizens every day. Is this too little, too late? Time will tell.

If not now, soon

AI will be a part of your fire service experience, if not now, soon – and you simply might not see it yet. (If you’re ordering a fire truck, AI may have already been used to streamline its design and construction.) It is incumbent upon us as leaders to do everything we can to avoid another situation where technological advancement causes us to chase our tail when we should be leading the pack.

Chief Marc S. Bashoor joined the Lexipol team in 2018, serving as the FireRescue1 and Fire Chief executive editor and a member of the Editorial Advisory Board. With 40 years in emergency services, Chief Bashoor previously served as public safety director in Highlands County, Florida; as chief of the Prince George’s County (Maryland) Fire/EMS Department; and as emergency manager in Mineral County, West Virginia. Chief Bashoor assisted the NFPA with fire service missions in Brazil and China, and has presented at many industry conferences and trade shows. He has contributed to several industry publications. He is a National Pro-board certified Fire Officer IV, Fire Instructor III and Fire Instructor. Connect with Chief Bashoor at on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. Do you have a leadership tip or incident you’d like to discuss? Send the chief an email.