Futures of Work and Learning in the U.S. Fire Service: Education and Training for a Blue-White-Dirty Collar Occupation

Timothy R. Amidon, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Colorado State University & Colorado School of Public Health; Tiffany Lipsey, M.Ed., Assistant Professor and Assistant Director of Human Performance Clinical Research Lab, Colorado State University; Elizabeth Williams, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Colorado State University & Colorado School of Public Health; Randy Callahan, Battalion Chief, Poudre Fire Authority

Is firefighting a white- or blue-collar occupation? This is a timely and important question for fire instructors to consider because, depending on whom and how they respond, it will have a powerful impact on the types of training and education that members of fire-service organizations receive now and in the future. Indeed, responses to this question, we suspect, influence the different types of learning experiences and knowledge that members of fire service organizations seek. Coupled with the technological and scientific progress that has occurred over the past three decades, it’s likely that many fire service organizations, including those vested with the responsibility of training the next generation of firefighters are wrestling with this very question.

Of course, it’s a difficult question to consider. On one hand, there are components of firefighting that haven’t changed since emperor Augustus organized the Vigiles to fight fires in Rome. Millenia later, water continues to be a particularly effective agent for suppressing fires, and pulling structures apart with hand tools continues to be a useful tactic for accessing deep set fires. On the other hand, 21st century fire service organizations respond to just about every type of conceivable hazard possible. From hazardous materials and high-angle rescue to advanced life support and vehicle extrication, today’s firefighters are not only expected to possess a wealth of technical knowledge from scientific fields such as chemistry, physics, physiology, medicine, law, plumbing, rigging, and construction, but also the ability to apply that knowledge effectively and efficiently. It’s an incredible responsibility.

It should also give instructors pause, because there are good reasons to believe that training and educating the next generation of firefighters is about to get even more complex. Soldiers, scientists, engineers, and doctors have been using emergent technologies like smart-wearables, cyber-physical systems, big-data, artificial intelligence, and augmented- and virtual-reality to work, learn, and train for some time now, and these technologies are beginning to enter the fire service. Scott’s Sight (a SCBA mask that augments reality by offering firefighters’ onboard thermal imaging) and Globe's Wearable Analytics Sensor Platform or WASP (a physiological and location monitoring textile integrated into firefighters’ structural PPE/uniforms) demonstrate how smart-technologies are already being integrated into our PPE. What fire instructors need to understand is that these aren’t just technologies that we’ll add; they are technologies that will, as National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) and Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF) boldly asserted, "revolutionize firefighting". The operative word: revolutionize.

How might these technologies enact such a profound change? According to NIST/FPRF, these technologies will prompt a shift from "tradition-based tactics" and "data-poor decision making" to "data-driven science-based tactics" and  "information-rich decision making environments" (p. 9) that is fundamentally about tensions between white- and blue-collar work in the fire service because these technologies have the potential to provide firefighters (across rank) with unprecedented amounts of data, information, and, eventually, knowledge. Firefighters will continue to do physical, dirty, blue-collar work, but an increasing percentage of the work firefighters perform will be evaluating the validity and reliability of data, analyzing and translating it to information, as well as communicating and rendering decisions based on that information. In other words, the profession of firefighting in and beyond the 21st century will be a hybrid of blue-, white- and dirty-collar work: some would argue that it already is and has been.

Firefighters will have access to longitudinal and real-time data about emergencies but also the ways firefighters practice and learn firefighting that will allow us to make evidence-based decisions about what works. These tools will offer firefighters, line-officers, and executive fire-officers a level of raw, empirical data about practice that hasn’t existed previously. If these data are to be made valuable to the fire service, firefighters will have to develop practices for using raw data and orient themselves to the potentials and limitations of using it within existing decision making processes. That’s where the rubber meets the road: these new tools will place a powerful strain on existing tactics and decision making processes because they’re rooted in a tradition of anecdotal knowledge that is deeply revered.

Integrating these tools into the fire service will require a major cultural shift in how we teach, learn, and work. And, it will require us to strike a careful blend of retaining work practices that have traditionally served us well, while phasing out aspects of practice that might be less effective or that are built on less-than-scientific-beliefs about what works or might keep us safe. Firefighters are humans, and historically when humans have made poor decisions about technology it comes down to social and cultural factors. Sometimes we resist good technologies that help us solve fairly consequential problems because of the nostalgia we hold for the past (e.g., flashhoods; SCBA), whereas other times we uncritically adopt tools before we’ve appreciated the damage and problems they can cause (e.g., thermal-imaging cameras; SCBA). Emergent technologies will capture more data from and deliver more data to firefighters, line-officers, and executive-fire officers than ever before, and that will have negative and positive consequences on the work firefighter do and the ways they do it.

Here’s a hypothetical scenario to demonstrate: A first due truck company arrives to a working structure where victims are struck on the third floor. Two members of the truck company enter the structure through a door on the first-floor to make the rescue, but when they get to the second floor a wearable device informs one member of the crew and the IC on scene that s/he is having a cardiac event. The firefighter feels fine, but the data says that s/he needs medical attention immediately.

What legal ramifications could follow, if the IC tells the crew to make the grab? Or, if the IC orders the crew to back out and the victim perishes? Or, if the IC orders the crew to back out, but they disregard the message making the rescue while one firefighter suffers a career ending cardiac injury? What other potential scenarios can you envision? How will big-data, smart-technologies, and cyber-physical systems change the firefighters work? What role will fire-academies, trade-schools, or colleges and universities play in ensuring that firefighters receive the training and education that is necessary for working safely and confidently in a digital age? What types of literacies, skills, and abilities will firefighters of the future need to develop? How can we work with leaders at national, regional, and local levels to integrate technologies in a meaningful and responsible way?

This panel invites participants to consider these questions and more. We will offer participants a brief overview of how cyber-physical systems, immersive technologies, and big-data are being developed for use in the fire service, and we will discuss how leaders in Poudre Fire Authority and researchers at Colorado State University are working to design solutions to these challenges. However, the bulk of the time will be devoted to considering how education and training can or should prepare recruits, firefighters, line-officers, incident-commanders, and executive officers to make use of smart-technologies and big-data. Participants will be organized into groups of 3-5 where they’ll be asked to: (1) identify and describe economic, educational, cultural, and organizational barriers that might impact local fire service organizations’ abilities to prepare for this future, (2) envision solutions or approaches that they might use to influence policy and strategic planning at local, regional, or national levels, (3) report back on their group discussions, so that we can record responses and share them with the larger ISFSI community.

References/Further Reading:

Gouge, C. & Jones, J. (2015). Wearables, wearing, and the rhetorics that attend to them. Rhetoric Society

Quarterly, 46(3), 199-206.

Grant, C., Hamins, A., Bryner, N., Jones, A., & Koepke, G. (2015). NIST Special Publication 1191: Research

roadmap for smart fire fighting. NIST/NFPA.

Haas, C. (1998). On the relationship between old and new technologies. Computers and Composition, 16, 209-

Hirst, J. (1884). On the methods used by the Romans for extinguishing conflagrations. The                      Archaeological Journal, 41, 155-167.

Sauer, B. (2003). The rhetoric of risk: Technical documentation in hazardous environments. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence

Erlbaum Associates.

Winsor, D. A. (2000). Ordering work: Blue-collar literacy and the political nature of genre. Written
      Communication, 17
(2), 155-184.


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