We need change – in more ways than just digital!
Stefan Truthän talks like a man on a true mission: fast-talking, bubbling over with ideas – a provocative and engaging challenger of received wisdom. As CEO of fire protection company hhpberlin, he sees his role as being an agent of change and a bringer of new ideas. In addition to his leadership role, he is a serving firefighter with the Berlin fire department. And he is organizing a special showcase for INTERSCHUTZ 2020 entitled "Digitalization & Transformation".3 Dec 2019
Stefan Truthän, the future of our emergency and rescue services here in Germany is an issue you deal with on a daily basis. Do you think we are ready for the future?
Looking at some of the new challenges facing us, I would say “no, definitely not”. The incident scenarios confronting our emergency and rescue services are changing radically in both number and nature. Climate-related flooding, forest fires, storms, mass killings and terrorist attacks may still be the exception rather than the rule, but they are growing in frequency and intensity.
Consequently, the roles performed by our emergency and rescue services are expanding massively. These are big challenges, but I am confident we can cope with them if we put our minds to it. But then again, those aren’t the only challenges facing us.
What others are there?
There are a number of major social trends that are also having an impact on the emergency and rescue services. Our cities are getting bigger, our population is aging, and the challenges of transport and mobility are taking on new dimensions. Plus there’s the challenge of recruitment. We’ve still got young people joining the fire service, of course, but the problem is, they don’t stay around very long.
And then there are the changes taking place within our organizations. We are under pressure to make increasingly complex decisions under increasingly tight time pressure. Meanwhile, budget cuts are limiting the number of frontline responders and the equipment at our disposal. We’ve learned to cope with these constraints, obviously, but if our resources continue to be eroded, we will start running into problems. So, our conventional emergency and rescue service capabilities no longer match up with the external and internal challenges we are facing today and will be facing in the coming years. And that is cause for concern.
So, what now? What should we do?
We need a fundamental re-think of the emergency and rescue services, starting with some very simple, yet highly confronting, questions. Questions like: Is “fire service” even the right term in this day and age? Does every village actually need its own firehouse? Or: What happens if your house is on fire and the firefighting crew that appears on the scene consists of women, only?
OK, so let’s go through these one by one. Is “fire service” the right term for what the fire service does?
It’s a pretty obvious question to ask when you consider that the bulk of what the fire service does is not actually putting out fires but rescue work and vehicle extrication.
Does every village need its own firehouse?
What’s needed is not so much the building as appropriately skilled and equipped firefighters who are actually present and available when they are required. It’s all very well and good being a member of your local volunteer fire brigade, but how are you going to help put out a local fire if you’re several hours away on your day job? These days, thanks to mobility, our lifestyles are almost nomadic. We’re no longer tied down to any one location – we move around, over large distances, both for work and personal reasons.
So, why can’t I be a serving member of two fire brigades at the same time? In Hannover during the day, and in Braunschweig, where I live, at night?
What about fire brigades in large cities?
Fire brigades need to be available 24 hours a day, there’s absolutely no question about that. But do we really need a firehouse that’s staffed around the clock? Does it make sense to have fixed working hours? Or fixed places of work? Isn’t it enough just to have firefighters available in the city when they’re needed? At present, a fireman from Berlin who happens to be in Munich on his day job would not actually be able to attend an incident in Munich, despite being there and having the time. That is a waste of resources, surely. If resources are available, they should be used.
The fire service regulations would be a good way of enabling that. But can these regulations even been regarded as being applicable standards? As you can see, these sorts of questions open up the possibility of completely new working time models, or New Work, to use the current term. We can and must re-think how we use our resources. But, unfortunately, there is too little debate on the pros and cons of the current division of tasks in our emergency and rescue services. Too little debate on what our role actually is and what practices are outmoded and need to change.
So, what practices, in your view, are outmoded?
The linear career path in the fire service, for one. Why should firefighters have to work their way up through the ranks of the leadership hierarchy? Why should commanders actually have to have past experience of putting out fires? Isn’t it much more important that they be good motivators and effective managers? Obviously, these are pretty contentious questions. But they are examples of the kinds of debates we need to be having.
And we can have them. I mean, firefighters are courageous, so they can handle it. Another problem is the lack of standardization.
Are you referring to Germany’s federal structures and municipal division of responsibilities?
Yes. Our fire hoses all have Storz couplings. Everyone knows how they work and how everything fits together – we have a universal standard. But apart from that, the different departments and brigades around the country have developed their own approaches to technology and tactics.
So perhaps we need a federal fire service that inspects the local brigades and improves and harmonizes standardization and integration. And that includes digital services. Looking ahead, we need a software solution that ensures standardized processes and procedures – a kind of digital Storz-coupling, if you will.
Going back to one of your earlier questions: What would happen if a house was on fire and the fire truck that responded had an all-female crew?
Well, first up, we’d all stop and stare in amazement, wouldn't we? And we’d soon see that the women would not be able to do the job on their own under current conditions. Let me put it another way: What if the crew was made up entirely of old men? Wouldn’t the effect be similar? In both cases, it is clear that the vehicles would need to be completely different than they are now.
But why? Why does a serving firefighter have to be male, aged between 18 and 35, athletically built, over 1.85 meters tall and available for duty 24/7? Don’t get me wrong, we need that demographic. But that, on its own, is an incredibly small labor market. Our societal reality, on the other hand, looks very different. We have an aging population. And we have a gender gap.
So, what does that all mean?
It means we need to have a conversation about diversity. And about the different skills, abilities and talents of each individual. Having more women in the fire service would be enormously beneficial.
Women bring skills to the job that your classic male firefighter does not necessarily possess. And why is a 70-year-old unable to work in the fire service, despite having a wealth of incredibly valuable firefighting experience? We could use technology to enable him to do the job – exoskeletons spring to mind. The man controls and initiates the movements, and technology gives him the strength to make them happen. As you can see, by changing the technology we also change how we think about teams and tactics.
Which brings us to the lead theme of INTERSCHUTZ 2020. What will you be presenting there, in Hall 16?
In Hall 16, as our central hub for the whole of INTERSCHUTZ, we will be running a showcase on transformation and digitalization . Our aim is to stimulate debate and discuss future challenges and opportunities. Among other things, we will be running a special display dedicated to the challenges and megatrends of our VUCA world. VUCA – that stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous.
The challenge for us as individuals, as a society and as members of the emergency and rescue sector, is to stop looking for solutions that we can keep frozen in time for 50 years, and to start engaging with our volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world in a robust and resilient way. That kind of resilience, that kind of flexibility, starts in our heads. We need to practice it until it is second nature. And that starts with creating a positive underlying attitude to the reality of constant change.
On the face of it, that sounds like some kind of mental limbering up. But what would this flexibility look like in practice?
Let’s look at it this way: Why should the vehicle we use be called a fire truck, considering that it does a whole lot of other things besides put out fires? The term is a distraction, it’s lost its relevance. This is important, because language shapes our thinking, and the term you use for something can have far-reaching consequences. Let’s take financial assistance, for example. A funding provider might only be willing to provide investment capital for a fire truck, even though the money could be put to much better use elsewhere. Our current structures are simply no longer fit for purpose.
And that is why we need to dismantle tried and trusted structures. But of course, for emergency and rescue organizations, that is much easier said than done. Their dilemma is that they are the final bulwarks of civil order– they can’t afford to cause uncertainty.
But we will still be needing organizational structures in the future, right?
Yes, of course. But those organizational structures need to be robust enough to be flexible. Our fire services here are long past the point where they are able to keep up with all of the tasks they need to perform in order to keep our cities safe and secure. They are purely reactive. If we here in Germany want answers on these matters, then we need to look closely at what’s being said and done in the USA and China. I say that because the challenges are universal: growing cities, budgetary constraints, climate change and, most importantly, digitalization.
What is the way forward with digitalization?
The way forward with digitalization is to completely rethink the world we live in, because the point of digitalization isn’t just to make the old world more efficient and a little more convenient. In concrete terms, I would like to use digitalization first and foremost to prevent accidents and not just to become more effective at rescuing people from their consequences.
Take fire prevention, for example. In the future, the fire service may have the ability to phone you and warn you that your gas water heater will develop a leak in four days’ time if nothing is done about it. From there, your water heater can be shut down and repaired. For this scenario to be possible, our fire services must be compatible with digital city technologies. There needs to be digital data exchange, not data silos. We need openness and trust, not a them-and-us mindset. Only then will we be able to benefit from the data available to us.
What role can INTERSCHUTZ play here?
INTERSCHUTZ is an immensely important opportunity because it brings together all the key players from the emergency, rescue, safety and security services at one location. It is a mirror image, or microcosm, of the entire sector. And that’s why it must also be our think tank – the place where we re-think the world around us. For us here in Germany, that means, more than anything else, learning from others.
It means standing on the proverbial shoulders of those who are truly changing the world. Because, let’s face it, we in Germany are no experts when it comes to digitalization and platforms. Our strengths lie more in engineering, efficiency, and bringing things together. So, the question we need to ask ourselves is this: How do we go about bringing the necessary know-how to Germany? So that we can make our country and our cities safer and more secure?
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