If we squeak (or wheeze) loudly enough, will firefighters get the technology we need?

The advancement of wildland fire apparatus and equipment depends on using available technology and pushing for undiscovered technology


Technology to help combat wildfire’s ever-increasing rage comes in two flavors: available and undiscovered. Now more than ever, fire service leaders need to lean in to both.

Apparatus and equipment evolution

When I started at a rural firehouse in the early 80s, we wore button-up Nomex shirts, bandanas under ill-fitting shrouds, and fire shelters that could radiate heat away but provided no protection against direct flame impingement. And in case a structure fire broke out in the middle of California’s range lands, our engines had two sets of one-size-fits-nobody turnouts alongside steel-bottle SCBA stowed in their cases. The go-to nozzle was a heavy brass straight stream. At least one firefighter rode in the open air at the back of the engine.

The advancement of wildland fire apparatus depends on using available technology and pushing for undiscovered technology.
The advancement of wildland fire apparatus depends on using available technology and pushing for undiscovered technology. (Photo/Getty)

Forward-thinking leaders embraced improvements in technology. Now, PPE is individually fitted. Lightweight SCBA are ready-mounted and outfitted with calibrated PASS alarms. Fire shelters can withstand direct flame impingement. “Brass” is a lightweight composite with an array of water pattern settings. And firefighters sit inside the engine’s cab.

Still, wildland firefighting needs all the help it can get in this age of megafires. Let’s consider the help in the form of available and undiscovered technology.

1. Available technology

There are countless vehicle technologies readily available:

  • My Jeep’s GPS drops breadcrumbs.
  • Costco sells affordable drones that can give us real-time intel remote resources needed (think Charlie, Delta and Golf strike teams assigned in impossibly rugged terrain).
  • REI offers a plethora of spot-trackers.
  • Baja 1000 and Mazda3 drivers have heads-up displays (HUDs).
  • The enduro set (long distance off-road racers) gets auto-SOS for detected levels of G-force that occur in rollovers miles from witnesses and real-time vehicle tracking with map plotting that would come in handy on large-scale incidents with thousands of assigned resources.
  • My husband’s F150 delivers hands-free texting and HEPA-filtered air with climate controls that create a limited positive-pressure environment.
  • Some auto racers have heat-resistant undercarriages.

Why aren’t these features standard complement on today’s Type 3 engines and other crew-carrying vehicles?

Because there are hurdles.

First, we need to change some mindsets. Let’s talk about those high-ranking “good ol‘ days” members. You know who I’m talking about. They want “hardened firefighters, not soft, spoiled ones.” They think firefighters will fold from body shock if they exit an air-conditioned cab into triple-digit heat.

Here’s my counterargument: We trust our captains to make life-and-death decisions, so maybe they can handle some discretion with AC and positive pressure knobs in the cab and acclimatizing their crewmembers for extreme temperature shifts. If your old-schoolers don’t buy it, I recommend they track down military officers deployed in Afghanistan who can talk about how their Humvees and M-RAPS had AC – and that’s not what was killing their soldiers.

Second, we need to constantly incorporate evolving technology into our training regiments. For example, if we train our members about the conflict drones can create in fire-controlled airspace, then they’ll figure out a way to use them safely. If we train them to use HUDs and hands-free coms and spot trackers, etc., then they’ll capably harness the benefits available to them while avoiding the risks. This is a generation raised on understanding and mastering technology, not fearing it. This is a generation that should be encouraged to use available technology to make firefighting safer and more effective than it ever has been.

2. Undiscovered technology

We can’t wait for Jeep or Costco or other tech-savvy private-sector companies to take the lead on fire technology. Why? Here’s the thing: They aren’t responsible for keeping communities and firefighters safe. Fire service leaders are – both management and labor. These leaders need to identify areas in a technology vacuum.

Here’s an example that hits close to home for me: respiratory illnesses caused by cumulative years of choking down wildland fire smoke. Yes, it’s time we out wildland smoke inhalation as a problem to solve with technology.

Twenty years into my career, I was diagnosed with adult-onset asthma. “Are you a smoker?” my doctors always ask. “No. But I’ve fought a lot of fires,” I tell them, leaving out the details. I was the first to take off my SCBA during overhaul. I always volunteered for long-term assignments on campaign fires. I did all the reckless, stupid things 20-somethings do to prove themselves in this business.

A few months ago, I went to an outdoor concert in Southern California’s Coachella Valley. Tens of thousands of music lovers pummeled the dirt grounds into a fine particulate worthy of Burning Man’s playa dust. Like a frog in boiling water, I sat in my low-to-the-ground folding chair and unwittingly sucked in particulate that would further damage my already permanently scarred lungs and deliver an asthma attack like I’d never experienced. I couldn’t get a full deep breath of air for three months. The concert dust took advantage of my lungs’ fragility caused by early years of disregard and a complete lack of any solution for wildland firefighting respiratory protection.

I read a recent article about research funding in the United States. The basic premise was that research money flows to squeaky wheels – we fund what we care about most. The problem: Firefighters aren’t known foremost for squeaking. We are a buck-it-up bunch, which is why we need union activism. We have to make it someone’s job to complain on our behalf so we can continue in our tradition of stoicism.

I tell you all this because I am not an engineer or an inventor or even all that tech-capable. But I can see we have a problem with no known solution. And I know that SEAL teams can breathe underwater for hours with lightweight cylinders, Baja 500 drivers have sealed helmet air sources, and wildland dozers are upgrading to pressured filtration environmental cab systems – all of which tells me that if we squeaked (or wheezed) loud enough, researchers might just be able to come up with a clean-air solution for our wildfire foot soldiers, if for nothing more than rehab.

Ask the important questions

As a starting point for your department, ask your boots-on-the-ground firefighters what technology they’d like to see. Ask them what is available that they don’t have on their equipment. Ask them what isn’t available, but that we should start squeaking about to help the generation behind them.

Note: Retired Fire Captain Jeff Lee provided research assistance for this article.

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