Data Analysis: Key to Successful Department Operation

According to Answers.com, data analysis is the

“process of inspecting, cleaning, transforming, and modeling data with the goal of highlighting useful information, suggesting conclusions, and supporting decision making.”

When using data to present your annual statistics and make requests for funding and projects, are you using it properly and ethically? Your analysis and suggested conclusions can impact your department’s ability to convey your message by showing how the organization is doing and how it’s responding to its customers.

What data do you report on a regular basis and why do you report the information? If you’re reporting data just to make a report, it’s probably not getting the desired outcome.

Analysis of data takes time. If you were to ask most departments what information they report and why, you may hear that it helps to justify the budget or it indicates if response times are meeting the standards.

According to USFA’s Fire Data Analysis Handbook, there are three good reasons to review your data:

  • To gain insight into fire problems
  • To improve resource allocation for combating fires
  • To identify training needs

Highlighting Useful Information

The definition of data analysis above mentions “the goal of highlighting useful information.” According to the Fire Data Analysis Handbook, you can gain insight into fire problems; to do it in a useful manner, you need fire-incident information viewed through the lens of your total service-delivery information.

The National Fire Incident Reporting System is the largest single point collecting data from over 14,000 fire departments in the United States; it has been collecting data for over 30 years. In 1963, the NFPA established a dictionary to standardize language for reports: NFPA 901, Standard Classifications for Incident Reporting and Fire Protection Data. Both of these systems now have similar coding systems to allow for easier use of collected data and comparisons with other departments.

Defining Useful Information

Two NFPA standards can help you identify what information will be useful to your department:

  • NFPA 1710, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments, 2010 Edition
  • NFPA 1720, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Volunteer Fire Departments, 2010 Edition

Each standard defines performance measures you can track to evaluate your organization’s ability to deliver service to the community.

  • Call receipt and processing time – The interval between when the public-safety answering point receives an emergency alarm and when the dispatcher has sufficient information to notify applicable units of the emergency. The maximum time for this component is specified in NFPA.
  • Turnout time – The interval between when responding units acknowledge notification of the emergency and when the response time begins.
  • Response time – The time that begins when units begin travel to the incident (wheels rolling) and ends when units arrive on scene (wheels stopped at the address). In the past, this time component has been referred to as travel time.
  • Initial attack – Firefighting efforts and activities that occur from when the fire department arrives on the scene of a fire to when the incident commander decides either that the resources dispatched on the original response are insufficient to control and extinguish the fire or that the fire is extinguished.

Each of these definitions has useful information. The call processing time is vital to turnout time. Knowing how long it takes your dispatch center to receive a call and dispatch units can help drive your ability to provide service delivery. Whether you’re a career or volunteer fire department, this is vital information.

Suggesting Conclusions and Supporting Decision Making

Has your organization established performance benchmarks for the data you collect and will it help your department become a better organization? If your response time to an outlying areas shows that your department can’t begin a fire attack within the accepted time, this may drive you to look at other options for that service delivery.

Evaluate the data to look for gaps in your department and then suggest conclusions from the data you’ve gathered; create a report that everyone can understand and draw a similar conclusion from. The numbers in your data can help define the outcomes of incidents the department has responded to, helping to support decisions made. Comparing year-to-year statistics can show trends.

For example, a marked increase in a particular type of incident may support your decision to deploy more assets or request additional funding to meet the related needs. Likewise, a decrease in incidents may demonstrate an ongoing program is successful.

Data analysis also provides value to your department’s safety culture and helps to keep your members safe by letting people know what the data shows.

One way to measure safety is by inspecting the equipment we use; PPE has to be maintained. Likewise, the data you keep—having good records of equipment maintenance—can help you review the maintenance program’s status and help to justify replacement and repairs.

Is some equipment wearing out faster than expected and will it have to be replaced before budget money is available? Can your budgets be adjusted to account for the change in wear?

Requesting funding to support your organization’s mission can best be done with the data you’ve gathered. Whether as part of your annual budget or requesting grant funds, your organization depends on information to help protect the community.

Providing information to those who fund your operation is critical to budgetary justification. Conduct your due diligence with data analysis and validate what you’re asking for with the information you’re publishing.

Carefully and correctly analyzing and reporting your data is key to successfully operating your fire department.

Richard Miller is a subject-matter expert working in the IAFC’s National Programs department.

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