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5 most exciting breakthroughs for the fire service

Here’s my list of the outside world’s best breakthroughs that have the most potential to change the fire service


Join the conversation about these selections and add your own.

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“Horizon scanning for emerging technologies is crucial to staying abreast of developments that can radically transform our world, enabling timely expert analysis in preparation for these disruptors,” said Dr. Bernard Meyerson, chief innovation officer of IBM on the World Economic Forum’s site.

For the fire service, that horizon scanning includes both what’s coming within the service and what’s happening outside the service that can or should come our way.

While predicting the future is a fool’s errand, horizon scanning is key to fulfilling our mission to protect firefighters and our civilian populations. This special coverage section is devoted to that purpose.

In the 10 other articles in this section, you’ll find various experts scanning various horizons for ways to improve the fire service. To kick things off, here’s my list of top breakthroughs I hope to see crest the fire service horizon in the coming years.

Please use the comment section to join the conversation about these selections and add your own.

1. How the brain works

A few years ago, then-President Obama likened brain research to the space race of the 1960s. And rightly so, major, long-term research initiatives into mapping how the brain works were launched in Europe, Japan and the United States in the past several years.

Scientific American wrote in 2014, “Scientist and author Lyall Watson once remarked: ‘If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn’t.’” Regardless, our children will understand more about how the human brain works than we can even imagine.

For example, in the past decade or so, we’ve learned that cells once thought to be inactive stuff play a large role in memory and learning. We’ve learned that the brain doesn’t take in all that it sees and hears; rather, it plucks bits of information from the environment and fills in the gaps with things it makes up.

We know from brain imaging that some supposedly free-will decisions are made at the subconscious level before the conscious mind makes that decision. And we now know the adult brain is far more capable of learning and changing than previously thought.

All of this adds up to potential changes for how we train firefighters, how we train officers and how we view our own sensory information in the heat of firefighting.

2. Virtual reality

Driver simulation technology has been touted for years as a method for teaching firefighters to drive fire apparatus. But cost and physical size of the units have kept them out of many departments.

Virtual reality headsets are getting smaller, cheaper and graphically better. Headset versions are being used to train skilled workers in everything from medicine to welding, as well as training medics and soldiers.

It’s not a great leap to see this technology used for live-fire, mayday, self-rescue, RIT, search and rescue, alternative-fuel vehicle extrication, water rescue and any other number of critical skills that are difficult to simulate with props or acquired structures.

3. Stress management training

This broad-based term is something the U.S. military has been working with for years to find ways to both teach soldiers techniques for coping with stress and boost training stress to build resilience to stress. The end goals are to improve performance under stress and reduce the likelihood they will contract post-traumatic stress disorder.

Combining brain science and virtual reality technology is being used in both stress inoculation training and relaxation technique training. Some studies have used VR on combat medics with promising results.

I can see a day when this training becomes part of both fire academy and ongoing training as a method for preventing PTSD and suicides — and improving performance on fireground skills.

4. Open source research and sharing

What the computer software world learned long ago is now catching on with the scientific and business communities. And that is that open-source, open-access work-sharing projects have far more power to achieve results than do teams working in isolations.

The level of connectivity on social media platforms that allows people to share photos of pets and recipes ad nauseam, has matured enough to facilitate real work.

It won’t surprise me to see firefighters from around the world in the near future jumping on a single platform to solve big issues like understanding fire behavior, teaching fire prevention and improving firefighter safety together.

5. 2-D atomic material

For about 10 years or so, scientists have been tinkering with two-dimensional material that’s made up of a single layer of atoms. There are several variations of it, with graphene — made from carbon — as the most widely known.

These materials are described as a molecular mesh that is harder than diamond, flexible, nearly weightless, stronger than steel, and can conduct electricity and allow water vapor to pass. It’s being used now for wearable sensors and to improve battery life.

So far it’s been very costly to produce. But that’s coming down and it will likely find application in water and air filtration and in making existing material stronger and lighter.

Fire helmets, boots and turnouts will likely benefit from its low weight and high strength. It may make buildings less susceptible to collapse and firehose less likely to burst. The possibilities are seemingly endless.

There is exciting work afoot in the world outside firefighting and rescue. And when adapted into our world, it will have some profound consequences.

Rick Markley is the former editor-in-chief of FireRescue1 and Fire Chief, a volunteer firefighter and fire investigator. He serves on the board of directors of and is actively involved with the International Fire Relief Mission, a humanitarian aid organization that delivers unused fire and EMS equipment to firefighters in developing countries. He holds a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s of fine arts. He has logged more than 15 years as an editor-in-chief and written numerous articles on firefighting. He can be reached at