Scenario: At 3:45 p.m. on April 23, 2025, you are dispatched to a report of a fire in a house at 253 Sycamore Lane. You quickly conclude your fire inspection and begin your response, meeting the water supply engine at the closest hydrant. The home is an older home and is not equipped with a residential fire suppression system. The fire engine is self-driving and programmed to respond to the closest hydrant and await a responder. You exit your vehicle and connect the supply line to the hydrant and charge the barrel. A remote gate valve will open when the engine signals its readiness for water, allowing the line to charge. The incident commander (IC) has arrived from her duties.
While responding, she has been watching the video feed from an autonomous drone that was dispatched to the incident site, receiving thermal and digital images from the location. She is able to determine the location in the rear of the house of the fire through its heat signature and has completed several 360° assessments before arriving. As other responders arrive, they deploy several autonomous, small robots. They will enter the building and begin a self-directed search using a learning algorithm and deploy flame interrupting technology to knock down the fire and cool the structure. As the robots search, they will identify weaknesses in the structural members using sound waves and identify the location of victims by using their heat signature.
Once victims are found, their location will be relayed to the IC and to the heads-up display built into the face piece of your air mask. You will enter the structure, which has been cooled to less than 300° by the actions of the robots, making your job much easier. Integrated exoskeleton components allow you to move quicker, lift more, and accomplish tasks without as much effort, allowing you to make a quick rescue of the victim.
Every tool described in this scenario is either in late-stage development or has been released for commercial use.
There is a legend of a Chinese curse that says, “May you live in interesting times.” Today, the fire service is living in interesting times and is faced with unique opportunities and challenges that will change the way we conduct business. At the same time that technology is being deployed into the emergency services realm, the number of potential responders who will be available to join the ranks is about to diminish. Already, approximately 50 percent of the work conducted in the United States can be performed by machines. In addition, by the year 2020, the number of workers leaving the workforce will not be matched by an equal number entering. In fact, by 2025, we will begin to see noticeable reductions in the number of workers entering the labor market, driving up labor costs and making automation of tasks desirable. This article will look at the current state of some of the technology that will be used to assist emergency responders in the very near future.
Autonomous vehicles may fly, drive, or swim and have the ability to provide information and move equipment and personnel. In 2017, the first autonomous aerial vehicles will be deployed to serve as human transport vehicles. These vehicles have the ability to transport groups of individuals, similar to buses and mass transit systems, along predetermined routes; this will reduce the maintenance cost on road infrastructure and move transportation systems from two-dimensional systems tied to the earth to three dimensional systems capable of moving more people in less time. These systems can be easily adapted to ambulances, as is being tested, where emergency medical services providers respond in rapid response vehicles and the transportation unit is flown in to the patient. This allows for rapid patient transport, the ability to move emergency responders around quickly, and quick turnaround of the transportation unit.
Aerial vehicles, whether autonomous or controlled remotely, also have the ability to move heavy payloads and deposit them where needed. This allows for the rapid sharing of resources and the reduction of vehicle weight. For example, a hazardous materials team may deploy in a small vehicle with minimal equipment and then request preassembled packets of response equipment, which can be requested and delivered to the scene. This allows the development of regional or state caches of equipment to be developed and stored, deploying as necessary, thereby reducing cost to communities and increasing efficiencies.
Aerial vehicles can also serve as information gathering units. Whether searching for heat signatures and fire conditions, looking for lost hikers, conducting crowd surveillance for illness at special events, or monitoring air or water quality at a hazmat incident, the ability to gather information that can be assessed and turned into useful intelligence is critical to the decision-making process. These vehicles are already being deployed by emergency response organizations throughout the world, and their use will expand.
Similarly, autonomous or guided vehicles are being deployed to operate in the marine environment. These vehicles can be deployed on or below the surface and have proven themselves instrumental in a variety of situations including searching for lost divers and drowning victims, analyzing vessel integrity during collisions and groundings, and assessing the integrity of pipelines and bulk storage tanks.
Finally, autonomously operated road vehicles have the potential to remarkably change the response makeup and lifestyle associated with firefighting. The ability to store these vehicles in locations designed to allow their rapid deployment has the potential to eliminate the need for fire stations. Instead, response crews will be expected to perform other duties, such as community risk reduction activities, with the vehicle responding to incidents along predetermined routes and standing by to perform specific tasks based on specified algorithms or commands given by ICs. This eliminates the need for stations and their associated facility costs, such as furniture and beds, with responder deployment resembling that of law enforcement.
The use of small robots to enter structures and gather and share information is well within the technical capabilities of current robotics. Unlike autonomous vehicles, which follow a top-down, scripted response path, these robots learn while working. This allows them to adapt to building layouts, hoarding, inventory storage, and other impediments to movement and communication. In doing so, they are able to both provide information and create a real-time blueprint, making movement in low visibility easier and safer. In addition, these devices can be tasked to assist with deployment of equipment, such as fans for ventilation, through communication with the IC using integrated data collected from all deployed technology on the incident scene.
Fire integrative technology has been developed and deployed in the field. This technology can rapidly diminish the size of fires and cool structures, providing tenable conditions faster than the deployment of water. Deployed by a single individual or a robotic vehicle, this technology has the ability to reduce the workload of fire companies, allowing response actions to shift to rescue and extinguishment of smaller fires.
Traditional Model Shift
While the deployment of these technologies may be several years away, the fire service is facing the potential of a large shift in its traditional model. It is likely that the firefighter of the future, whether volunteer or career, will be performing operations much differently than today. The ability to integrate and leverage technology coupled with changing demographics and economics allows communities to begin to look at the fire service in a different light.
Over the past 40 years, the fire service has incorporated a variety of response disciplines into its arsenal, including the provision of emergency medical care, hazmat, and technical response. However, within a few short years, the ability to recruit sufficient staff along with economic shifts because of an aging population and changes in expectations will merge with technological innovation, forcing the fire service to shift from a response model to an integrated model combining community risk reduction, altered response concepts, and building on new tools and techniques to provide a wider array of services using new deployment models. In short order, communities will begin to expect regional sharing and deployment of resources, reduced and altered staffing models, and services that are both economically efficient and effective at ensuring safer communities.