Mark Krizik is a systems engineer for Motorola and a lieutenant in the Posen, Ill., fire department outside Chicago. He’s also a prophet. A couple of weeks ago, Motorola held a one-day firefighting training seminar for its product engineers, designers and marketing managers, which Krizik led. The idea behind the event, which has been held annually for the last nine years at the University of Illinois’ Fire Service Institute, is that experiencing what firefighters experience will result in products that work the way firefighters need them to work.

During the orientation that preceded the exercises, Krizik mentioned that slips and falls were the most common injury suffered by firefighters. Shortly thereafter, I nearly tumbled down a flight of concrete stairs. It was, dark, smoky and my SCBA mask was fogged — I couldn’t see a damned thing. So, in a feeble attempt to find the first step, I commenced something of a tap dance. Big mistake. My heel hit the top of the step and immediately slid off, which nearly catapulted me down the stairs. Fortunately for me and the other members of my team who I would have wiped out, I managed to somehow arrest my fall AND hang onto the heavy crowbar-like device and flashlight I was carrying. (In that brief moment of panic I uttered a rather colorful expression of my terror — which, thank goodness, was muffled by mask.)

There were other lessons learned that day, but that was a big one. I circled back with Krizik and the other members of my team to find out what they learned, which I’ll be writing more about in an upcoming edition of Urgent Communications. Lan Ting Garra, a Motorola product designer, also was struck by the complete inability to see anything. “I’ve heard a lot of firefighter stories, but it’s different when you put on the gear and do it yourself,” she said. “The fear that comes with not being able to see was an eye-opener and was a good experience in terms of designing products for the future.”

Of course, we were in a controlled environment with “clean” smoke. I have a vivid imagination and I can’t contemplate how terrifying it would be to be in a fire that’s throwing off thick acrid smoke.

I asked Krizik about the advantage of being both a system engineer and firefighter. Obviously, his firefighting experience provides valuable insight in terms of system and product design.

“I’m constantly reminded that there are people out there who rely on our products — and that life and death is a consequence of things not working right,” he said.

Krizik added that the dual role also gives him a unique ability to guide his customers. “Sometimes a customer will want something that I know can’t be done from a technical perspective, or will be too expensive for them to afford,” he said.

All in all, the experience truly was an eye-opener.

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