Editorial: Real Change Does Not Come From Above

Dec. 17, 2003
Change is a part of our world, and part of the world of first responders.

by Alan S. Brown

From the outside, first responder organizations appear conservative. They are based on military models. Emphasize chain of command. Uphold tradition. And stick with methods that have proven themselves over decades if not generations.

Yet this issue of Responder Safety underscores just how much change is a part of our world.

Take our lead article, "Incident Command Tools: Beyond the Whiteboard." Administrators have embraced computers for records, rosters, and reports for decades. Increasingly, though, software vendors are finding ways to push other types of vital information into the field. Today, maps, floor plans, and incident-specific SOPs are likely to appear on vehicle consoles, laptops, and pocket PCs.

Technology delivers the goods, but they come with a price. Floor plans and lists of dangerous chemicals don't appear by magic. Someone has to identify potential problems, then map, list, input and update them.

It takes time and money, but most departments do this type of planning as a matter of course. But computers don't allow them to put it on the backburner. If you don't keep up, the data won't show up. Or worse, the wrong data will show up and someone will walk into a situation without understanding the danger.

Computers will force changes at the scene as well. Commanders like to keep their eyes on events. That's how they manage. How will they square their vigilance with the demands placed on them by computers. While most field software uses touchscreens and drop down menus, they still require more time and concentration than scribbling something on a whiteboard. Unlike whiteboards, though, computers can freeze or go down, taking assignments, event logs, and PAR timers with them.

Part of what is driving increased computerization is the post-9/11 emphasis on mutual aid and unified incident command. Vendors claim their systems will help commanders manage responder groups that arrive from other jurisdictions. In a large event where the commander does not know all his or her crews, this could prove invaluable.

The emphasis on interdepartmental cooperation is also new. While FEMA and other federal and state agencies have long supported an interagency approach, it goes against tradition. One former battalion chief told me that for most of his 30 years, his department believed that what other agencies did was entirely irrelevant to his mission.

This is reinforced by competition. Fire, police, and even EMS compete with one another for attention and, more importantly, budget allocations. I'm sure New York City is not the only place where pushing and shoving is common among the spectators who show up at football games held to further police-fire relations.

Yet interdepartmental cooperation is coming.

As noted in Homeland Security Programs Teach Fundamental Lessons, the Office of Domestic Preparedness (ODP) teaches the incident management system and unified command in all its classes. It requires participants in its classes to know how to implement both. While ODP takes pains not to tell states how to run the exercises it funds on their behalf, you better believe the use of unified command and incident management is part of their structure.

But the speed at which these changes – interdepartmental cooperation, mutual aid, computerization – arrive will not depend on edicts from above. It will hinge on whether responders themselves see the value in innovation and embrace it.

Software makers, for example, are now forming alliances to link different types of software together. Instead of entering the name and skills of each responder who shows up at an incident, they will be able to tap one another's databases for preexisting records.

Why is this happening? Because responders see the value of computers, but they also see that systems that work in a vacuum are simply too time-consuming to use.

Similarly, joint exercises give responders an opportunity to understand the skills and capabilities of other organizations. The competition for budgets and the media spotlight will always be there. But as responders realize their effectiveness together is more than the sum of their parts, they may be more willing to cooperate with one another.

But it won't happen until everyone buys into the benefits. Because no lasting change ever comes from above.

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