Firefighting in the New Economy: Changes in Skill and the Impact of Technology
Ward, Brian W.
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To better understand the shift in workers' skills in the New Economy, a case study of professional firefighters (n=42) was conducted using semi-structured interviews to empirically examine skill change and the impact of technology. A conceptual model was designed by both introducing new ideas and integrating traditional and contemporary social theory. The first component of this model categorized firefighters' skills according to the job-context in which they occurred, including: fire related emergencies, non-fire related emergencies, the fire station, and non-fire non-emergencies. The second component of this model drew from Braverman's (1998/1974) skill dimension concept and was used to identify both the complexity and autonomy/control-related aspects of skill in each job-context. Finally, Autor and colleagues' (2002) hypothesis was adapted to determine if routinized components of skill were either supplemented or complemented by new technologies. The findings indicated that skill change among firefighters was clearly present, but not uniform across job-contexts. A substantial increase in both the complexity and autonomy/control-related skill dimensions was present in the non-fire emergency context (particularly due to increased EMS-related skills). In fire emergencies, some skills diminished across both dimensions (e.g., operating the engine's pump), yet others had a slight increase due to the introduction of new technologies. In contrast to these two contexts, the fire station and non-fire non-emergency job-contexts had less skill change. Technology played a major role in the skill change experienced by firefighters. Surprisingly, aside from the introduction of computerized engine pumpers, the technology introduced did not diminish skill by replacing routinized tasks (Autor et al. 2002), and also did not create an overall decrease in firefighters' skill as would be suggested by Braverman (1998/1974). Instead new technologies tended to create new skills for firefighters, especially in the fire and non-fire emergency contexts. Similar to the consistent level of skill used in the fire station and non-fire non-emergency contexts, with only few exceptions (e.g., computers) technology's impact on firefighters' skill was found to be rather limited in these two dimensions. Using the tenets detailed in the conceptual model, a more elaborate understanding of skill change and technology's impact was able to be realized.