Using Fire Department Operational Data to Demonstrate Community Value

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Today’s firefighters are “all-hazards” responders, providing emergency medical response, fire suppression, technical rescue, hazardous materials response, response to active shooter/hostile events, fire inspections, public education, investigation, community training and more. While this is a long and growing list, effectively managing a fire department essentially comes down to three elements, no matter the specific hazard:

  1. Understanding the risks in the response environment
  2. Deploying enough resources to effectively manage every incident
  3. Being able to demonstrate how changes to response resources will affect the overall safety of responders and the community

This article is the first in a three-part series on the fire department operational data necessary to know and understand these aspects of your community and your local fire department. In this first part, I will discuss the need for data to “tell the story” of a local fire department. In part two, I will discuss using data for community risk assessment. Finally, in part three, I will discuss the deployment of sufficient resources and the impact on responders and the community.

The Need for Data

One of the greatest challenges to fire service leaders is articulating a fire department’s value in a quantifiable manner. Fire department leaders (as well as political decision-makers) must know how fire department resource deployment in their local community affects community outcomes in three important areas:

  1. Firefighter injury and death
  2. Civilian injury and death
  3. Economic loss

On a national level, some summary data are available: In 2016, NFPA reported 1,342,000 fires in the United States. These fires caused 3,390 civilian deaths, 14,650 civilian injuries, and $10.6 billion in property damage. Of the fires in the NFPA dataset, 475,500 were structure fires, causing 2,950 civilian deaths, 12,775 civilian injuries, and $7.9 billion in property damage. NFPA also reported that 173,000 of the fires were vehicle fires, causing 280 civilian fire deaths, 1,075 civilian fire injuries, and $933 million in property damage.

Though these data are informative, they do not address your specific community and they do not tell the story of the responders and their actions upon arrival to intervene, mitigate the risk and positively affect the outcome.

Tell a Better Story

Many fire chiefs compile information and issue annual reports. These reports are produced primarily for decision-makers and include many interesting facts like response statistics, specialty team reports, and highlights of fire department services other than emergency response. Annual reports provide an opportunity for fire chiefs to demonstrate the department’s value and educate stakeholders.

Fire department operational data typically contained in annual reports include:

  • Fires per capita (per 1,000 population)
  • Fire loss estimates vs. assessed property value
  • Fire loss per capita (per 1,000 population)
  • Civilian injuries/deaths per year
  • Smoke detectors installed
  • Total number of incidents
  • Incident number/percentage by category (e.g., fire, EMS, hazmat)
  • Incident number/percentage by type (e.g., cardiac, trauma, vehicle fire, trash fire)
  • Response times overall and by specific service areas
  • Total fire inspections and public education sessions conducted

What’s missing from this list? The above data primarily focus on outputs achieved rather than the actual outcomes associated with a given level of fire department resources and the budgeted funding. For example, instead of just reporting the number of smoke detectors installed by the fire department, consider reporting the outcome of fires in those structures. Another example might be reporting when/where rescues were successful based on the arrival of an effective response force on scene in less than 8 minutes (performance metric in NFPA 1710). Annual reports can be a powerful, effective and efficient way to connect with the community. But traditional annual reports do not tell the complete story of the department’s capabilities, activities, operational performance or system resilience.

Even with recent technological advances and substantial fire department efforts in data collection, the fire service is often unable to quantify experiences to determine its relative effectiveness.

Today, fire service leaders must tell a more comprehensive story. The first step is to anticipate the questions to be asked by decision-makers, the press and the public. The next step is to not only answer those questions but also go beyond to educate them on your message: What can your department do, what does it do and what impact does it have on the safety of the community?

Capture the Right Data

But how? Fire chiefs may have a “gut feeling” about the department’s capabilities or how a particular resource deployment change will affect operations, but that’s hardly sufficient when talking with elected officials, gaining public support for a tax levy or applying for grant funds. For these and so many more tasks, leaders must have reliable fire department operational data. However, even with recent technological advances and substantial fire department efforts in data collection, the fire service is often unable to quantify experiences to determine its relative effectiveness.

Fortunately, there is an array of data elements and calculations that can help. The department’s Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system provides a treasure trove of information, including geocoded addresses for visualization of response data. CAD also records the type of call, times for crew dispatch, turnout, arrival on scene and termination of the response. These times are all significant in assessing performance and can be enriched by additional on-scene operational task times such as water-on-fire time or at-patient-side time. Together these data tell the story and portray the value of a fire department to the community.

Traditional annual reports do not tell the complete story of the department’s capabilities, activities, operational performance or system resilience.

The issue many fire department leaders have in gleaning this information from CAD data is that CAD tends to be a “data dump,” without context or visualization that provides meaning. If you have the time and resources to sift through the data, you can discover the meaning. If you don’t, there are tools available that can help. For example, all these data elements are captured in the National Fire Operations Reporting System (NFORS). Fire departments using NFORS have access to a live interactive dashboard that can make raw data usable in your operational decision-making. Visit https://i-psdi.org/nfors.html for more information.

It All Starts with Data

Fire department operational data, and the information gleaned from it, show the need for prevention, public education and emergency response services. Data can show how many apparatus are needed, how they should be staffed, where they should be located, and how firefighters and paramedics should be trained to ensure optimal performance of responders on scene. All these aspects of operations work together to facilitate a positive outcome of any incident.

The necessity of data collection, analysis and reporting cannot be overstated. Data are the sustaining lifeblood of the fire service. Fire chiefs and other department leaders must learn to leverage data available in their emergency response system, including the CAD, to tell the fire department’s story. They must go beyond traditional records management system reporting and be innovative, using technology that provides near real-time information and solutions.

Only then can we begin to communicate not only what the fire department did, but also the impact of those actions on the safety of the community.

Lori Moore-Merrell

Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell is President and CEO of the International Public Safety Data Institute, an organization that procures, assembles, analyzes and reports information from fire, rescue and law enforcement data, including live dashboards for local public safety agencies. Prior to this position, Lori served for 26 years as a senior executive with the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), responsible for frontline interaction with elected officials, fire chiefs, and local labor leaders throughout the U.S. and Canada. Lori has extensive expertise in emergency response system evaluation, data collection and analysis, costs and benefits analysis, strategic planning, advocacy, consensus building, and policy development and implementation. She began her career as a firefighter/paramedic with the Memphis (TN) Fire Department, holds an undergraduate degree in education and EMS from the University of Memphis and has masters and doctoral degrees from the George Washington University School of Public Health.

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