I’ve never been a big fan of gizmos. Generally, I like to keep things simple. I drive a Jeep, partly because there’s not much that can go wrong — no cruise control and no power locks, windows or mirrors to malfunction. (It does, I must admit, have an automatic transmission, a concession to urban living and the constant stop-and-go nature of the car travel that comes with it.) I ride an old-fashioned, coaster-brake bike for the same reason. The last thing you want is for your shifting mechanism to freeze up when you’re several miles from home, or your hand brakes to fail when a delivery truck suddenly pops up in your path. A coaster brake never fails.

Only recently did I purchase an MP3 player — the radio always has worked well enough for me. I only did so because the TVs at my gym never are tuned to anything I want to watch, and I can’t get radio reception from the outside.

So, I can understand why firefighters largely have resisted digital radios, which I touched upon last week. Analog radios, especially when they’re operating in simplex mode, still are held in very high regard, because digital radios have performance issues in certain situations. For example, while analog signals fade away at the edge of the coverage area or when a dead spot is encountered, digital signals can disappear abruptly and unexpectedly. That’s a surprise no first responder wants to encounter.

Granted, analog radios aren’t foolproof. But as Kevin Nida, the radio communications officer for the Los Angeles Fire Department and the president of the California State Firefighters Association, explained last month at the International Wireless Communications Exposition (IWCE 2010) in Las Vegas, the human ear apparently decodes an analog signal differently than it does a digital signal. For that reason, when an analog signal is staticky, portions of the communication still can be discerned; in contrast, a digital signal afflicted by static generally is unintelligible. The ability to hear even part of a mayday message can mean the difference between life and death.

So, it’s understandable that the fire service tends to cling to its tried-and-true analog radios. When you’re the ones running into a building when everyone else is running out, you want to know that you’ll be able to communicate not only with each other, but with incident command. Reliability cannot be undervalued in such circumstances.

All of that said, digital radios generally provide clearer, stronger signals compared with analog, and are less prone to interference, reducing instances of static. Already, strides have been made to correct the problems that digital radios have been having on the fireground, because the previous vocoder was unable to distinguish between human voice and background noises, such as those generated by chainsaws and apparatus engines. It stands to reason that more improvements will come, particularly if the radio manufacturers and breathing-mask manufacturers collaborate to engineer an integrated mask/microphone solution. Expect it to happen — technology always advances, usually at lightning speed.

Once the kinks are worked out, digital radio should be every bit as reliable as analog. But will they be embraced? History says they will not — at least for the short term, due to the technology “generation gap” that exists in the fire service, according to Paul Roberts, a captain with the Boise (Idaho) Fire Department, who also spoke at IWCE 2010.

“My senior generation wants to run fireground [communications] with about five channels — and that is it,” Roberts said. “My young recruits, they grew up with BlackBerrys and all of this high-tech, high-speed stuff. When I tell them that we have a simplex radio system and only one repeater, they’re like, ‘We need more than that.’”

Of course, the twentysomething recruit of today is the senior leader of tomorrow. When they’re in charge, technology will be viewed in a much different way. According to Roberts, one of the fire service’s biggest challenges is what to do in the meantime. “Our command staff, as intelligent as they are, and as committed as they are, they’re not real interested in the technology today, because they didn’t grow up that way,” he said.

Being of the same generation as today’s fire-service leaders, I can attest to the fact that bridging the technology generation gap is not going to be an easy task. For example, it only was recently that I was able to accept that the only way I was going to be able to communicate with my twentysomething children in any sort of timely fashion was by texting rather than talking. That seems crazy to me.

But I also can attest that we baby boomers can get with the times. I’d elaborate, but if I don’t stop pounding the keys right now, I’ll miss my train. I wonder which episode of Family Guy I’ll watch on my MP3 player on the ride home.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.