Making Your Case: Why Data Counts

The fire service in the United States does a generally poor job of collecting and managing data about the work we do. Our brothers and sisters in law enforcement are much more skilled—they are trained to do this from the very start.

The National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) has its own set of issues, but recent work on NFIRS is making it easier to use and will allow it to provide data back to fire departments in a much timelier manner.

There has been a bit of recent news about response times. As fire service managers, we know the limitations of quoting average response times. Much as we might hate that statistic, it makes sense to the customer. Let’s try to provide statistics to our customers that make sense to them.

However, we should be talking about data that can prove our worth to both our bosses and customers—not counting the number of feet of ladders raised or miles of hose laid. Our bosses and our customers have no idea what those numbers mean or how they impact service.

What matters to our bosses and customers? One of the most valuable things we do for our customer is respond quickly. After looking at our data, we found that in some parts of our city the first-due unit was gone on another call over 30% of the time. This also helped explain the need for some equipment and staffing changes.

Let’s develop a standardized set of statistics that address this issue so we can tell our stories in terms that can be understood:

  • The percentage of time that firefighters arrive on the scene of the emergency within five minutes after the 911 call is answered by dispatchers—community-wide and for neighborhoods.
  • The percentage of time that a structural fire is confined to the room of origin, the floor of origin or even the zip code of origin.
  • The percentage of time that the local fire station is first on scene of an emergency (surprising data for busy systems)—many people assume the local firefighters are always in the station waiting for their call.
  • The percentage of time that an effective firefighting force of 16 firefighters arrives at the scene of a structure fire within eight minutes of when the 911 call is answered by dispatchers.

A brief word on the dangers of bad data: Early in the 20th century, Mark Twain popularized the saying, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics." Not much has changed since then. Our customers and our bosses have a natural suspicion of statistics because they have seen them misused. Bad data and mischaracterized data can hurt.

Take a moment to speak with your statistician or the person who wrote the report you’ve been quoting for years. Make sure the assumptions under the data are correct.

Most people think that five minutes ends just after four minutes and 59 seconds. Even if revising the report will make bad news, it’s better to fix it in advance than have the local press or a blogger point out your error.

Data is important. It can tell our story.

Kevin Roche is an assistant to the fire chief for the Phoenix (Ariz.) Fire Department.

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