It always happens, firefighters learn about the hazards associated with new technology on the job (the hard way) long after the product has saturated the market and this practice goes back to the 1800s when firefighting was in its infancy.
When you think about it, in the 1800s, gas was the go-to for cooking and lighting and it was firefighters who had to learn how to deal with the associated fires and explosions after thousands of homes had already installed gas systems and major gas storage tanks had been built-in residential areas. It was firefighters who had to learn how to deal with electricity, not only in the home but following the rapid installation of electricity in industry and public transport. It was firefighters who, through trial and error, learned how to deal with petrol-fuelled vehicles and then how to deal with the change to gas-powered vehicles in the 1970s. The list goes on for firefighters, with rapidly changing technologies, magnesium wheels, plastics and airbags in the vehicle industry alone. Don’t get me wrong: I acknowledge these advances have all helped our society and made it easier to live.
Now we have a new challenge with a world pushing for action on climate change. One of those changes is the proliferation of lithium batteries for thousands of uses. Even our humble smoke alarms have 10-year lithium batteries nowadays. With the proliferation of lithium batteries firefighters are finding more and more ways for them to catch fire and having to develop ways, on the run, to mitigate these hazards. Airlines now include phone warnings in their safety briefings, paramedics check and ask questions about the probability of a child swallowing a button battery. From hearing aids to power stations, lithium is one of the main sources of storage energy for the foreseeable future.
That’s not the end of the story though, as a large number of these batteries need charging, sometimes causing overheating in damaged or poorly maintained batteries, mainly in the domestic market.
Firefighters who once trained for fires in large coal-fired power stations now have new ways to produce energy for mass consumption, most of them a welcome clean change to the dirty generations systems of the past. However, these new generation methods come with their own challenges for firefighters to address. Wind power generators are on towers 150m above ground in isolated rural settings, though one of the bonuses is that the affected generator can shut down without exposing neighbouring generators. Firefighters still have to extinguish the fire or just let it burn controlling the associated grass and scrub fires that will inevitably occur.
Photovoltaic and Concentrated Solar Thermal electricity generators cover vast areas and are usually in remote locations, many kilometres from the nearest town, and that town would probably have only a basic rural fire station. In-house fixed fire protection and network separation is the only method of stopping fire spread across these vast areas.
All of these examples show the problems that change can have on firefighting and ability of fire fighters to adapt to that change. All too often new technologies come on to the market for the betterment of society without a proper risk assessment or found in aftermarket use to have a fire problem.
So, what is the answer? How can we ensure firefighters of the future are not caught by new risk unawares, without having a bureaucratic system slowing innovation?
Here are two practices we should embrace: shared experiences and early engagement.
When something unusual occurs there should be a race to the next conference and/or journal to share the experience and, if there is a solution, share that among your colleagues. Too often the first paper presented is well after the horse has bolted waiting for HQ and legal approval.
Early engagement is easy to say but extremely difficult to do, particularly when you don’t know what you don’t know. One example of good practice was the introduction of airbags in passenger vehicles. Manufactures and firefighters quickly saw this as a problem and set up training programmes for firefighters in developed countries and then shared the problem and solution to developing countries.
I don’t have an answer to emerging risks, but I have faith that firefighters will find a solution.
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