Recently, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) released a report on its “Today and Tomorrow’s Fire Data,” an edifying two-day workshop I attended earlier this year at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) headquarters in Gaithersburg, Maryland. More than 50 fire service thought leaders gathered to discuss the opportunities and challenges in the use of data.
Marty Ahrens, manager of Fire Analysis Services at the NFPA, kicked off the workshop with a clear message: The industry must work together to improve the collection, analysis, and distribution of fire experience data to reduce the nation’s fire problem. Her motivating address was followed by presentations and panel leaders from an alphabet soup of fire service organizations, including IAFC, IAFF, ISO, NASM, NFPA, NIST, and USFA.
The early conversations centered on the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS). There was clear that consensus the system is effective for what it was designed to do — analyze the overall U.S. fire problem — but that there’s room for improvement, especially with regard to participation rates and quality control. I’ve found the aggregate data quite useful, but quality varies with a granular analysis.
There’s great value in knowing that cooking causes nearly 60 percent of structure fires. The statistic supports NFPA’s choice of “Prevent Kitchen Fires” as last year’s Fire Prevention Week theme. But wouldn’t it be great if a fire marshal knew if cooking fires in his county were a bigger problem than for similar counties? Such insight would guide prevention activities to focus on cooking safety and justify firefighter training initiatives for suppressing kitchen fires. To drive significant improvements to NFIRS data, we need to make real changes on how the data is collected.
Here are four key concepts that I gained from the workshop:
- Incentivize participation: Free data analyses, equipment, or grants can help motivate involvement.
- Make data entry easy: When volunteer firefighters return to the station after a 3 a.m. call, they don’t want to spend an hour documenting incident information.
- Educate end users: Knowledge streamlines the data entry process and improves quality.
- Make fire departments accountable: Conduct benchmarking exercises to ensure consistent data entry and quality.
The second series of presentations focuses on how various organizations use NFIRS and other data sources to make smart decisions. This was highlighted by high-level associations, and the Austin and Montgomery County Maryland Fire Departments shared inspiring examples at the local level.
The final presentations featured new data collection and research. While each initiative was noteworthy, the diversity of approaches and overlapping databases was apparent. Fire services can gain greater benefits with more cross-organization coordination and initiatives.
I strongly encourage you to read the workshop report. Better data will lead to better analytics. Better analytics will lead to informed decision making. And that, in turn, will help reduce the nation’s fire problem. That’s why we’re passionate about data.