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When the power goes out: Redundancy is key with firefighting technology

Technological advances hold promise, but fireground principles and rudiments must be focus of ongoing training efforts


A drone designed to ignite controlled grass fires comes in for a landing in a field at the Homestead Monument of America in Beatrice, Neb., on Friday, April 22, 2016.

AP Photo/Grant Schulte

The world of technology has found the fire service. Today, firefighters are witness to the integration of some of the finest scientific innovations into our realm of life safety and property protection.

There are miniaturized devices built for seeing better in smoke, detecting heat signatures and ultimately rescuing victims. Once relegated to cumbersome handheld cameras, the same technology is now integrating into helmets and SCBA components.

There are device apps for identifying hazardous materials or locating fires and firefighters in a structure. There are advancements in personal lighting, communications and rehab, all allowing for safer and more productive exertion. Master streams are computerized and pump operations are digital. Lithium-ion batteries power our rescue tools, giving firefighters freedom of movement and longer work times.

The progress of technology knows no limits. Soon we will be looking at robotic hoses, waterless fire suppression and radar-driven drone rescue. Firefighters will be schooled in remote control, computer maintenance and digital repairs. Until then, however, our profession’s love of technology comes with a warning.

Beware: Technology may be hazardous to your fundamentals.

Emphasize the essentials

As we become more and more dependent on these new labor-saving and safety-driven devices, we run the risk of drifting further away from the rudiments of firefighting and basic fireground principles.

Think of it like a pilot utilizing autopilot to land his plane. One day the system fails, and he is forced to land “by stick.” You can bet there is a great deal of adrenaline and systems review associated with such a touchdown.

Now imagine firefighters deep inside a structure using their highly sophisticated and extensively trained upon built-in, electronic, does-everything device. Turning the corner, they encounter a blast of radiant heat that immediately renders the equipment useless. Now what? Are they limited or delayed in task? Do they sweep the room for victims? Do they follow the couplings of the hose back out?

This is not a condemnation or even a restriction on new technology. It is simply a warning garnered from past experience with everything new and shiny.

Of course, we have waited far too long for such advancements to be directed at making our jobs more efficient and our lives better protected. But such a new culture of equipment proposes new directions for learning and performance. New training procedures, detailed maintenance requirements and a completely different approach to assessing and deploying this new technology require extensive education and practice.

Create redundancy in the system

The key to tech survival is to emphasize the essentials of firefighting while systematically encouraging the inclusion of technology, with all its required knowledge and expertise. While different equipment suggests different training scenarios, the rudiments of accomplishing any task associated with firefighting remain the same, even with the addition of such advanced and highly technical tools.

One such principle to keep in mind is the amount of replication associated with any fireground task. In a perfect world, this is why there are two lines for entry, two ladders to the roof and two teams per assignment.

Keeping focused on tactical outcomes by duplicating efforts when deemed critical diminishes any delay due to equipment failure or changing environments. This redundancy promotes safety and allows for the overall progress in accomplishing tactical objectives, which in turn results in strategic victory.

Now apply this concept of redundancy to the new and complex arena of electronic equipment. Not exactly the sales pitch you wanted to hear.

Reinforce tactical applications

While it is certainly acknowledged that technology does not come cheap, and the thought of duplicating such cost-prohibitive devices sends chills throughout administration, we must make every attempt to reinforce our tactical applications. Whether by machine or muscle, we must develop duplicate systems – all for that moment when the power goes out.

It is not enough to have learned how to fly a plane. To be called a competent pilot, one must know how to control a plane under any circumstance. Firefighting should be no different.

Jim Spell spent 33 years as a professional firefighter with Vail (Colorado) Fire & Emergency Services, the last 20 years as a captain. He helped create the first student/resident fire science program west of the continental divide, formed the first countywide hazmat response unit and was on the original Colorado Governor’s Safety Committee. As founder of HAZPRO Consulting, LLC, Spell advised businesses on subjects ranging from hazard analysis and safety response to personnel development and organization. His writing won six IAFF Media Awards. Many of Spell’s articles are available by podcast at His last book was titled “Boot Basics: A Firefighter’s Guide to the Service.” Spell passed away in April 2024 after a short battle with cancer. His last four articles detailed his cancer journey.