What’s Next?

In 1977, my father took me to see “Star Wars” (yes, it was in color). Although the storyline underscored the classic good vs. evil and light vs. darkness tale, it was, at least for this young child, an exhilarating ride into the distant future. Today, that future is right around the corner, and what seemed completely fantastic and impossible then is going to become a reality. Technology is moving so fast it is invisible to the naked eye, and it is coming to a fire station near you.

I want you to consider a future where there are no human firefighters entering immediately dangerous to life or health environments. Wait, what? You should think about it, because it is going to happen. Before the end of this century, firefighting as we know it will be a remnant of the past. Crazy? Perhaps, but researchers for the military have developed a deployable resource that can go into the middle of a battle and retrieve wounded soldiers without risking the lives of fellow combatants. This is not theoretical. If humans are inventing the machines to function in dangerous environments, any rational person has to at least consider that firefighting is, by definition, a dangerous task (duh) and is therefore on the list of jobs to be replaced by robots.

When a burning building collapses, we should not be under it. That is not new. And yet, we continue to kill firefighters because we are bound by a code to place ourselves in harm’s way for people we swore an oath to protect. What if, instead of sending human firefighters into a burning building, we sent machines, controlled by firefighters? Will we still call you a firefighter when technology changes the tools that you use to affect a rescue? Are you any less capable because you sent a machine to do a “human’s” job?

Manufacturing has seen perhaps the most dramatic impact to human capital. Since 2000, 88 percent of the manufacturing jobs in the auto industry have been lost to improving technology. Commercial plants that used to employ thousands of workers now employ dozens of workers who are called on to drive machines and monitor automated solutions that are inherently more efficient and less costly than their human masters. And, when these machines get hurt, or “killed,” they can be replaced with an identical machine—not a similar one or one that has a like skill set but an exact duplicate.

Older firefighters tend to look negatively at the current generation of “kids” whose lives are inextricably tied to technology, perceiving that they are not willing to put down their personal devices long enough to learn their trade. The time has come, however, to acknowledge that these same kids may, before they retire, witness driverless fire apparatus staffed by remote-controlled robots that enter burning buildings to extinguish fires, treat and transport patients to the hospital, and rescue humans. Of course, the demand to rescue humans from collapsed trenches, confined spaces, and other hazardous environments will similarly decrease as robots are called on to perform those types of dangerous work.

Think about some of the most dangerous aspects of what we do and the role that technology can play in reducing preventable line-of-duty deaths. As I write this article, California is burning at rate greater than any time in its history. Hundreds of pilots are risking their lives flying aircraft delivering extinguishing agent, flying under some of the most extreme conditions encountered in our history. Certainly, one can envision replacing those pilots with unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver the same extinguishing agent with greater accuracy, effectiveness, and safety for all involved. Fires will get put out more effectively and efficiently, saving millions of dollars and countless lives, including the lives of firefighters who will no longer need to engage on the front lines.

Forget (for just a moment) the discussion raging about transitional fire attack, adequate staffing, or cultural arguments about safety vs. extinguishment. In the context of emerging technologies, these fights are immaterial because, in less than a generation, firefighting will look completely different than it does today. Future leaders of the fire service need to ensure that we are prepared to embrace technology before it renders us irrelevant. If you accept the premise that there are about 1.2 million firefighters in the United States today, an 88 percent decrease resulting from the leveraging of technology to perform dangerous work leaves approximately 144,000 firefighters to protect us. Some of the most complex surgeries in the world are now being performed remotely, using robots controlled by surgeons who may be thousands of miles from their patients. The life-saving technology that is allowing gifted doctors to do what they do to save the life of a young child is the exact same technology that is going to render the current-day firefighter a museum-worthy memory.

The day will come when firefighters will no longer enter or get anywhere close to a burning building, and technology will be responsible for it.