Technology Life Cycles in the Fire Service

When the discussion of life cycles takes place in the firehouse, it normally involves the replacement of aging apparatus. While you may hear many opinions expressed, NFPA 1901 is very specific about the matter, stating, “It is recommended that apparatus that is more than 15 years old that have been properly maintained and are still in serviceable condition be placed in reserve status; be upgraded in accordance with NFPA 1912; and incorporate as many features as possible of the current apparatus standard…Apparatus that were not manufactured to the applicable NFPA fire apparatus standards or that are more than 25 years old should be replaced.” Although the word “should” does not exert the same authority as the use of “will, must, or shall,” the intent is clear. Maintenance can extend vehicle longevity, but at some point, changes in design and normal wear and tear assure that nothing lasts forever.

The same holds true for technology.  As improvements are made, out with the old and in with the new becomes the norm. Take, for example, the development of how we are alerted. In the journey from watchmen’s rattles to pagers and text messages, we have made significant progress, with stops at telegraph boxes, rooftop sirens, and home alerting receivers along the way. Unlike apparatus, while proper maintenance of electronics is required, it does little to defer extinction. Recently, the third generation of cell phone technology became obsolete, rendering 3G devices useless. It doesn’t matter if you took perfect care of your phone. Come December 31 of this year, all network providers plan to have shut down their supporting networks.

Other factors can be out of our personal control, as well, including how we communicate.  The migration of radios from simplex low band, where users talked directly to each other, to higher frequency repeated channels was an early step in evolution. Since then, trunked systems have been introduced, and FirstNet has made great strides toward national interoperability. However, interoperability requires cooperation—and purchasing—at a regional level. This can be problematic, especially when there are widespread funding differences between participating departments. The price for trunked radios can easily reach or exceed $3,000, and monthly fees are often required to support infrastructure maintenance and operation. Transceivers used on other network types may be less, but can still place a strain on poorer departments trying to decide between keeping fuel in their rigs and providing each firefighter with a portable radio. Failure to procure compatible devices can leave you without the ability to talk to neighboring agencies, and perhaps even the ability to talk within your own department.

Aging equipment can also be a concern. Instead of being technically obsolete, some devices become problematic due to lack of parts or support. Manufactures typically announce sunset dates well in advance, but it is not unknown for agencies to purchase needed items second hand, either from surplus or sites such as eBay to maintain service. Conversely, increased maintenance costs for older equipment can lead to replacing operable devices, as can changing regulations. Departments who wish to stay current by ensuring that their radios meet the NFPA 1802 standard could find themselves decommissioning units that were otherwise in working order.

Keeping up with upgrades

Not all changes involve field communications. Some of the more frequent and costly upgrades occur inside the dispatch center. Computer-aided dispatch, or CAD, tracks activity and makes recommendations on assignments. It also stores mapping and premise hazard information that is critical to firefighter safety. Many vendors assign annual or semi-annual software releases to fix bugs and add features. Unfortunately, some of these may result in what is termed a “forklift upgrade” when the new programming exceeds the capacity of existing hardware, resulting in an almost complete swap-out. This potential needs to be clearly defined in your initial bid specifications, including the addition of desired features that do not exist in the original product. Upgrades can also affect your physical plant by increasing space, power and HVAC needs. It’s important to recognize this in your planning process.

Lacking binding guidance, there are windows within which technical devices are often replaced. Some report using radios for 15 years, or more, while others swap out portables in 5 to 7 years, and mobiles within 10. CAD system terminals get changed between 2 and 5 years, often driven by constant improvement in the speed and processing of PCs. Main servers last longer. The choice to replace your logging recorder can be influenced by developing needs. The conversion from analog to digital that impacted fire radios also moved recorders from storing data on reels of tape to hard drives. The desire to keep more than just audio and to introduce quality control programs and search features may also be reasons for an upgrade. Columbia County, FL, for example, uses a 5-year cycle, and sought to acquire new software due to changing requirements.

The current nationwide transition to Next Generation 9-1-1 is resulting in a complete overhaul of both the network in the field as well as the telephone devices inside the dispatch center. As standard phones rapidly give way to computers, replacement schedules here will mirror that of CAD. The time factor regarding alerting system components often differs by type. Those that are permanently mounted within the station are subject to less abuse than those carried in the field, and so normally last significantly longer. Where smartphones are a part of this process, these devices last only 2 to 3 years in civilian use, according to the New York Times. It’s a fair assumption that exposure to the rigors of the fire service would compress this window even further.

One of the primary differences between replacing apparatus and replacing technology is that of component compatibility. Unless they have aged out, all of your current hoses, fittings, tools and SCBA can be used on your new rig. However, since there is a complex relationship between CAD, radio, alerting, recording, records management, mapping, telephones and every interconnected system, changing one may impact others.

Reference material

There are numerous online references that address technology life cycles. Among these are  August 2011, May 2018, and April 2020 releases from the Department of Homeland Security. Helpful information and additional links come from the U.S. Fire Administration, while the Federal Communications Commission addresses the management issues involved in this document,  and promulgates rules and regulations that identify what radio equipment can be used and how it must be operated.

As most transitions do not occur overnight, fire officials must keep abreast of proposed changes in major technology and regulations in order to remain ahead of the curve. As is the case on the fireground, foreseeable challenges that remain unaddressed result in unwanted outcomes. The famous author Artur C. Clarke once said that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” With careful foresight and proper fiscal planning, you won’t be the one getting tricked.