Using technology to lead
Last week, I wrote about how FDNY’s Chief Salvatore Cassano’s life has changed since the establishment of a state-of-the-art fire department operations center (FDOC) in its headquarters in Brooklyn, New York. The new center means Cassano no longer goes to an incident. Instead, he leads his teams remotely using a cadre of wireless technology to support his decision-making.
Some readers said the chief now sits in “an ivory tower” while firefighters hit the ground running. First of all, the chief is a 40-year veteran of the department. He’s been on the job fighting fires — and putting his life on the line — long before the security of modern technologies, including two-way radio and communications systems.
In fact, firefighters didn’t always have access to such technologies. Old-school techniques were used instead. It reminds me of stories told to me by my father, a retired Chicago Fire Department lieutenant, about the communication systems he used when he was first on the job.
“We just yelled out to each other,” he told me. “It was a very reliable system.”
FDNY’s move to have its chief run incidents remotely isn’t about hierarchy. It is about using technology to fill in operational gaps. The whole point of the FDOC is to increase the amount of voice and data communications throughout the fire department. It acts as the communications nerve center that lets the FDNY monitor operations at its 198 engine and 143 ladder companies. Cassano said it is used for both day-to-day and command-and-control operations for large-scale emergency incidents. Data transmitted over secure phone lines and computers are viewed on a wall-mounted, curved-screen panel where commanders review video and other data. Such data helps them make high-level decisions that keep citizens and firefighters safe, he said.
In addition, the FDNY recently armed its fleet of vehicles with an automatic vehicle location system. Cassano said the system tracks every apparatus. Moreover, the department now has the ability — through an agreement with the New York Police Department — to place fire officers aboard police helicopters so an aerial command view is available.
Cassano stands by the system and his new role. He said all of the aforementioned upgrades at the FDOC were crucial in handling the US Airways flight 1549 crash in the Hudson River in January. When the plane crashed, Washington officials called New York command and control to determine whether the wreck was terrorist-related. Officers on the city’s Joint Terrorism Task Force dispelled the notion. The chief was working out of the FCOC that day and had a visual of the plane floating on the river from the media, as well as a helicopter view. He also was in contact with the FAA and area hospitals. At the same time, he communicated all data via radio to his operations chief 10 miles away.
“I had a handle on what was going on much sooner, much more accurately, than anyone on the scene,” he said. “It was the vast amount of information received and managed at the center that helped me and my team seamlessly manage the incident.”
So it’s essential that fire chiefs tap into technology — and yes, this has changed the nature of their jobs. But to say for ego sake that a chief is better suited to be on the ground rather than armed with all the appropriate information is silly. To lead, a chief must have reliable information. And a leader must protect his people. Armed with technology and information, that’s exactly what the chief is doing.
What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.