IAFC Technology Summit forecasts future fire service tech

From augmented reality to wearables and data visualization, technology is making the future of firefighting safer


Although there is a running joke that the fire service upholds 200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress, the participants at the IAFC’s 2022 International Technology Summit did their best to quell any such mockery. Over several days in October, presenters and sponsors showcased technological innovations that are already transforming fire operations and changing minds. The fire service is indeed progressing.

Speakers hit on similar themes while painting a picture of a future that is just over the horizon. In as little as 10 years, many suggest, the fire service will be reaping the benefits of technologies already in development or trials.

Technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, augmented reality, drones and thermal imaging intersect, making it difficult to tease out the where one ends and another begins. So does the data itself, often compiled from many sources of variable credibility. But the inherent vagueness of categories doesn’t really matter – it’s in the collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas where innovation occurs.

Technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, augmented reality, drones and thermal imaging intersect, making it difficult to tease out the where one ends and another begins.
Technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, augmented reality, drones and thermal imaging intersect, making it difficult to tease out the where one ends and another begins. (Photo/Getty)

Following are six takeaways from the conference, spotlighting technology we are likely to see progress in 2023 and beyond:

1. Machines are not coming for your job

Technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning and machine reasoning are not meant to replace humans, but rather free humans up to make better decisions faster.

Artificial intelligence is already processing data and helping humans make intelligence-led decisions based on factors like risk assessment (e.g., which buildings need inspection first). Data gathered and plans made in the pre-disaster environment will help promote information-led decision-making during a crisis.

Data collected from multiple, disparate sources (e.g., building plans) ensures that information critical for situational awareness (e.g., entry and exit points, gate locks, hazmat storage and hydrant locations) is instantly available on any device when needed.

2. Decisions should be data-informed

“No aspect of fire service can’t get better with proper application of data,” said John Oates of the International Public Safety Data Institute. “Data does not necessarily come from the fire service.”

If having data is good, then isn’t having more data better? In this connected world, it’s easy to drown in a sea of information, most of which is not relevant to the task at hand. Data needs context to be relevant. It is critical to be able to cut through the clutter to get the data you need, when you need it, and relate relevant data sets to each other to gain actionable insights into a situation.

But connecting that data is the biggest challenge.

Leaders in fire technology are seeking ways to link data sets using modern technological means, like application programming interfaces (APIs) that enable two software applications to talk to each other and share data.

“Linking public and private data sets and using artificial intelligence and machine learning to recognize patterns and make sense of the incalculable data points that are collected every day should be a top goal,” Oates said.

3. Improving firefighter safety is a key driver of innovation

Innovations in the fire service are often born out of tragedy. Losses of life due to accountability failures have spurred development of technologies like personal accountability management systems (PAMS) that allow distance and directional feedback of firefighter location along x, y and z axes so incident commanders can account for the location and safety status of all firefighters on the scene.

Other technologies, like hands-free augmented reality smart visors attached to a firefighter’s helmet or goggles worn under a face shield, layer computer-generated information over raw and thermal images to enhance firefighter vision, allowing them to see edges and ventilation points and navigate through low-visibility environments like a smoke-filled room.

Wearables are another area showing purpose and potential. Although personal wearables like biometric trackers are not currently fire-resistant, they can be worn during rehab to measure heart rate and other vitals and alert firefighters and command staff to potential health issues.

4. Visual information is increasingly important

Geographical information system (GIS) mapping software overlaid with data sets gathered from public and private sources is bringing unprecedented ability to turn data points into visual, actionable information.

Myriad data points can be connected to enhance the situational awareness of fire crews and command staff and help protect the public. Minute-by-minute weather measurements and historical records overlaid on topographical maps can predict fire behavior, informing where fire crews should be deployed or public alerts or evacuations advised.

5. A common operating platform is critical for mutual aid

Whether manmade or natural, most major events like wildland fires, hurricanes and floods require mutual aid from multiple agencies that often work with different technologies on different platforms. A common operating platform is an enhanced digital map that includes layers of information that paint a common operating picture (COP) of an emergency incident. A COP, gathered from shared, updated data, is critical for ensuring real-time situational awareness across all levels of incident management and across jurisdictions.

The California Office of Emergency Services has been at the forefront of developing a program to provide real-time intelligence data and analysis on emerging disaster incidents in California. The system includes a situational awareness and collaborative tool (SCOUT) to facilitate cooperation among partner agencies including local and regional emergency response agencies and national partners like the U.S. Forest Service.

SCOUT is a mapping tool that provides a comprehensive visual picture of the operating environment during an emergency incident. The map layers include weather conditions and forecasts, live streams of fire cameras positioned around the state, live streams of video footage from drones and aircraft, and an overview of all major incidents in the state (including hazmat spills).

Intterra’s COP interface manages the exchange of information among agencies. The collaborative map visualizes CAD data, showing every call location and status, and pulls AVL feeds from apparatus, enabling incident commanders to see locations of trucks, engines and crews and make informed decisions about what resources to deploy where.

6. It’s time to flip the script

Thermal imaging video streamed from an aircraft can identify fire hotspots, augmented reality can guide a firefighter through a smoke-filled building, and hardware like drones can take on tasks that are too dull, dumb or dangerous for humans, freeing them to safely do what they do best.

Technology that makes the fire service more safe, effective and efficient is available, but there are barriers to adoption, like money, uncertainty, attachment to the status quo and, of course, resistance to change.

The fire service typically takes a waterfall approach to adopting new technology. It begins with gathering requirements, evaluating options, planning, building or buying, and then adopting the technology in one broad departmentwide swoop.

In the summit’s closing session, Fire Chief Dan Munsey of San Bernardino County, California, suggested that the fire service would be well-served to embrace a more agile approach to technology adoption. A department can start with small-scale usage, like a free trial software or working with the manufacturers to beta-test products in development. Use it, learn from it, experiment with it, add more use cases and expand it to more teams and users.

Looking ahead

Technology won’t solve every problem in the fire service, but it can help solve many. It can keep firefighters safer by keeping them better informed, with data input from multiple sources processed by artificial intelligence and machine learning to surface the most contextually relevant information.

The technologies addressed here barely scratch the surface of those options in use or development for the fire service, from apps that connect communities to first responders to robots that do dangerous and dirty work, exoskeletons that enable superhuman strength, stable and speedy satellite-based communications and 360-degree virtual reality training that gets as close to reality as safely possible. In 10 or 20 years, the seemingly futuristic technologies and best practices of today will become common realities for departments, making first responders and their communities safer and more resilient in a fast-changing world.

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