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Public Safety Embraces Technology

Looking back on the past 15 years, I’d like to say that I’ve seen the same monumental changes in law enforcement, fire/rescue, and EMS that I’ve seen in the world of technology. Unfortunately, similar to public education, the pubic safety profession tends to be reactive rather than proactive when it comes to embracing technology. There are many new ideas, concepts and gadgets currently on the market that can change the way we protect citizens, save lives, and stabilize incidents. But, we like to do what we have always done. Change is painful. I’m sure you’re familiar with the old saying “xx years of service, unimpeded by tradition.”

This editorial takes a look at developing a systematic plan to prepare for future technological changes that will shape the standard of care. Many departments are beginning to slowly embrace these new technologies. Public safety personnel around the nation are starting to use basic technology tools such as laptops, PDAs, AEDs, and thermal imaging cameras on a daily basis. Unfortunately, many more personnel are using outdated handheld radios, obsolete safety equipment and non-networked computers without Internet access.

As ironic as it may sound, the gap between rural providers and their urban counterpart continues to both narrow and widen. With the advent of the Internet and faster networked computers, rural providers now have access to a wealth of information including educational materials, data, headlines from around the world, current trends, and online ‘communities’ to discuss shared challenges. However, budget concerns and sparse technology resources remain an uphill battle for the small police force or volunteer fire or ambulance service. The need for well-training personnel in the rural setting continues to grow, while the call volume remains low. One report states that rural EMS personnel comprise 85% of the workforce while another says 15% handle 85% of the call volume. Thus, the dichotomy: an increased need for rural providers to maintain their skills without the opportunity to practice those skills.

Changing our Focus
September 11, 2001, changed the face of America forever. There’s a new emphasis on preparing firefighters, paramedics, and police officers for unexpected and invisible dangers. New devices are being developed. New courses are being offered. New knowledge is being shared.

But we need to start from the beginning. Does your department have the system in place to grow? Does it have the manpower, technology backbone, education and training to take your providers to the next level of expertise and proficiency? Most departments do not.

The Internet has altered the way we do business. It is not merely a technological advancement, but instead, a fundamental change in how business is done. Over the past decade, the corporate world made an all-inclusive restructuring of its business philosophies, strategies, and practices to take advantage of those changes. The public safety sector must do the same.

Where Do We Start?
Technology is a tool, not a solution. In order to take advantage of cutting edge operational tactics, online training opportunities, and high-tech educational practices, we need to have a solid foundation in the basics. In the realm of EMS, veteran providers are often heard mentoring new Paramedics, reminding them that “if everything else fails, start with the ABCs. Remember the basics.” In the same way, your department should be starting with the ABCs:

A - Assess your current needs, strengths, and weaknesses.
B - Build a technology plan.
C - Continually modify that plan.

Most often, technology decisions are an afterthought; they are not considered in the budget, burdening a department’s technological growth with undue financial hardship.

The first step is to assess your current needs, strengths, and weaknesses. Where do you want your department to be in 6 months? 1 Year? 5 years? Consider your current operating procedures. Do your personnel perform at the optimum standard when called to a burglary in progress, structure fire, or pediatric cardiac arrest? What about the routine calls like a traffic stop, smoke investigation, or nursing home transport? If not, why? Determining the cause can be difficult. The answer may be attributed to low training standards, personal apathy, or simply because they are ‘doing the job as they have always done it.’ As a leader in your department, it is your responsibility to know the current trends in operations. Compare the way things are done in your department to the way things ‘should be done.’ Standard practices in law enforcement, fire/rescue, and EMS are continually changing. Has your department kept up with those changes?

After determining where you want to be, draft a training program that reflects your objectives. Chances are your training program hasn’t had a major overhaul for many years. What works well with your department? What doesn’t work well? When was the last time you surveyed your employees? Employees have a unique perspective on your department and often have the answers to your training or operational needs.

Now that you have identified your operational weaknesses, assess your operational strengths. Each and every department has a feather in its cap – some area where they excel and set the standard. For you, it may be your training program, an aggressive medical control, or your high-angle rescue team. When building a solid program, it is imperative to not only strengthen your weaknesses, but also capitalize on your department’s strengths.

Build a Technology Plan
Now that you’ve taken a look at your department and built a strategy to move forward, the next plan is to incorporate technology that will assist you in your goals. Integrating technology for the sake of technology is a waste of money and resources. However, properly using the right technology tool can improve your department’s competency, efficiency, and safety.

The word ‘technology’ is a broad term. Defined by The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language as “the application of science, especially to industrial or commercial objectives.”

Despite this broad definition, most of us think of computers when we think of technology. Yes, e-mail, word processing, database management, reporting, and the Internet all depend on computers. But think beyond that. Technology includes many applications that can improve emergency services: cell phones, GPS devices, handheld radios, training manikins, scenario-based learning, state-of-the-art safety equipment, vehicles, etc. The list goes on and on.

A technology plan is a road map for making the most of these tools. Like a business plan, marketing plan, or a city’s 5, 10, or 15-year growth plan, a technology plan will outline your needs and plans for the changes in growth and development as it relates to technology. This strengthens your department in a number of ways:

1. Alleviate financial aggravations
Say, for example, that a fire department has made a commitment to increasing training by using CD-ROM programs and online continuing education. To complete that task, the department needs multimedia computers, network connectivity, Internet access, training programs, labor to complete the initial setup, and on-site instruction on how to use the new system. With a technology plan, the essential equipment, itemized cost breakdown, and timeline are listed and prioritized. From there, the project can be implemented in phases allowing the added cost to be worked into the budget.

The need to reallocate funds, sacrifice other tasks, or trim other projects is minimized. Although our industry deals with emergency situations, our day-to-day operations shouldn’t be handled in the same manner.

2. Align technology with department’s vision
A technology program provides the foundation for planned growth of administrative, operational, or training needs. What is working for another department may not be what will work for you. Is the technology in line with department goals? What will have to be sacrificed in order to commit to a new technology? How will the technology affect the timeline? Will it advance the department vision and mission?

On the other hand, technology can create new avenues for training or operational tactics. Do the department’s goals need to be realigned because of a technological breakthrough? What about the obsolescence of a product? Is your service prepared to make changes based on the volatile high-tech market? As planning becomes more ingrained, departments will find it easier to reevaluate earlier decisions – is this technology really going to do what we expected six months ago? Do we need to look at something different?

3. Focus on actual needs, not on desires for new gizmos
The new gadget or gizmo is fun, exciting, and sexy. It is easy to focus on a product that has a lot of promise and hype. A plan can help your department weigh the latest gizmo – one that hasn’t been properly evaluated, but it’s so cool that everyone wants one. Marketing and sales teams pull on the heartstrings that they believe will make you want to purchase their product. However, by leveraging your technology plan and basing your decisions on the big picture, your department will make wise choices, either sticking with proven technologies that will reflect your direction for the company or embracing new technologies that will achieve your goals faster.

For example, imagine that you are researching the possibility of video-based operations. Within that proposal, one of your objectives may be to broadcast video from a hostage situation, structure fire, or back of a moving ambulance to another location. Your goal, then, is to transmit video. Not to equip every person with a digital video camera. Focusing on actual needs of the department allows for adoption of the gizmo most likely to accomplish the goal, rather than tying the department to a specific tool.

The public safety sector is beginning to embrace technology. But, the rules of economics are not suspended because of the Internet, faster processors, enhanced communications, or high-tech training opportunities. Sensible business practices, coupled with a true vision for your department’s future, will allow you do make sound, reliable decisions that will truly impact the future for law enforcement, fire/rescue, and EMS on a global scale.

Is this the year that law enforcement, fire/rescue and EMS truly embrace technology? Probably not. But, maybe it will be the year that we place a new emphasis on strengthening our internal infrastructure, building a technology plan, and moving our profession to the technology efficiency that rivals that of corporate standards.

Jeri D. Pullum. Jeri has spent the past 15 years working with rural EMS providers, primarily on training projects for the Critical Illness and Trauma Foundation. She has designed, produced and authored numerous interactive computer-based training programs and contributes substantially to both the development of grant projects and in overseeing their completion. Using her background in print journalism and bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Montana, Jeri writes and edits scripts, training materials, proposals, reports and newsletters. She was an editor for a daily newspaper and worked for several years for a video production company. Jeri has a master’s degree in distance education and instructional technology. You can contact her at columnist Krisendath D. Kaull, a paramedic and former firefighter, specializes in technology trends and their effect in Public Safety. During almost 15 years in both rural and urban fire and EMS settings, he has enhanced technology communications between field EMS providers and emergency departments.
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