Prior to the age of emergency phone numbers, public safety dispatchers, and computer-aided dispatch, government servants were dependent upon more tangible forms of warning communication. These delivery techniques ranged from a designated town crier to a deafening Klaxon bell (school bell); however, each option required the shared responsibility of vigilance from the community’s volunteer firefighters. Since the creation of the telegraph, technological advancements in incident notification has resulted in volunteer fire departments to face the problem of a waning culture traditionally associated with the service. One-on-one communication has fallen victim to traveling wires while once bustling firehouses now stand empty until called upon. Unfortunately, the positives associated with technology have left irreversible consequences to the deep-rooted volunteer fire service of the United States.
Thanks to the United State’s founding father and inventor, Benjamin Franklin, the nation’s volunteer fire service has kept vigilance for citizens for almost 300 years. In the early years of organized fire fighting, citizens undertook a nightly watch referred to as the rattle watch. In the event of a fire, the designated individual would sound the rattle (a noisy, rotating piece of wood) alarming the neighborhood to join in a bucket brigade. In time, the demands for the emergency services expanded, thus resulting in an effort to advance the equipment and techniques used in response efforts. The para-military style of the nation’s fire departments aided in maintaining structure to the organization in addition to making fire departments the focal point of communities. However, with the advanced communications of the 21st century, individuals barely recognize the existence of this volunteer occupation.
Clearly, the fire service has changed drastically since the mid-1600s, and leaders of the emergency service are only now seeing the repercussions of these transformations due to technology. The importance of camaraderie shared amongst volunteers has gone wayside in exchange for fast and simple, yet unemotional, emergency notification. Jim Spell, a 33-year veteran and contributing writer to Fire Chief magazine, emphasizes the importance of fire departments recognizing “these new labor saving and safety driven devices” as a possible “risk of drifting further away from the rudiments of firefighting and basic fire ground principles” (Spell 2013). The rudiments he speaks of include the foundation of the fire service’s culture now lost in the separation of communication from victim to emergency responder. The levels of disconnect seen in fire service culture has only increased since the introduction of direct-messaging services like IAmResponding and Active911.
The numerous developments within the framework of the volunteer emergency service will only continue to mold its culture into the future. How firefighters, as a society of individuals dedicated to the preservation of life and property, choose to reserve the tight-knit, personable culture of the fire service depends on today’s members. The allowance of overpowering technologies within its rich tradition should be avoided. Departments must educate their members on responsible technology usage in order to sustain a service survived by humankind. Without this mindset, the possibility of robotic fire fighting will not be farfetched.
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