Numbers Matter

The fire service is generally an action-oriented profession. We’re doers, and we’re trained to take charge when everything seems to be falling down around us and others are running away.

Ultimately, these numbers are the data that’s essential to the modern fire service. Data includes statistics derived from budgeting, strategic plans, NFIRS fire reports and even quantifying the non-emergency activities (public-education events, training and community service) that take up more and more of our time.

They justify the federal programs we may rely on. They support the development of new products and tactics. Numbers will support our budgets, especially at budget time.

Our law-enforcement counterparts love statistics and crime-mapping to justify staffing and equipment. We may know our call volume has increased, that there’s been a rash of cooking-related fires or that the new subdivision is going to require a ladder truck instead of just the engine now in the house—but how can we prove it?

It’s essential that the fire service take this seriously, because the stakes are high. Our budgets—and our lives—could depend on how well we document and understand our activities.

From this perspective, fully recording, reporting and analyzing our data can benefit us in two areas: justifying our programs and initiatives at budget time and, more importantly, improving firefighter safety.

The budgeting aspect is fairly obvious. Other departments quantify how they’re spending each dollar and why they need new equipment, how and where they’re going to use that equipment and what service or benefit their people are providing to the community.

This is important for the fire department because our equipment is so expensive and we generally don’t represent a revenue stream to offset personnel expenses. So it’s critical that we can paint an in-depth picture for the finance director and elected officials. They need to know what we’re doing with all those people riding around in the million-dollar trucks. This is especially difficult to do with prevention (how do you quantify fires that didn’t happen?), and your fire marshal really needs to be able to pull valid information out of the community safety trends.

Though it may not seem like it, firefighter safety is a huge part of the numbers game as well. Those checkboxes on the NFIRS report flags firefighter injuries and fatalities for follow-up. It also allows the U.S. Fire Administration and various researchers to look for trends in the national data that can be used to adjust our approach to what’s really happening in the United States.

The details in a fire report also allow investigators to look back and figure out why firefighters died. Each crew thoroughly detailing what they did and when they did it allows a reconstruction of the event. It allows us to recreate the fire dynamics—the physics and chemistry of why a fire spread.

What time do the dispatch notes say the fire-attack crew made entry? When did the truck ventilate and how? What reading did the search group get on the thermal imager in the first-floor bedroom?

Small details like this paint a picture for the after-action review with all the crews. If you’re not doing this, you need to start!

These details can also help support a more-thorough examination of the scene. This may help reduce or prevent future fires, and in the case of a line-of-duty death, it may save the life of one of our brothers or sisters in the future.

If we don’t have this information, if the responding crews did a poor report without details and without filling in all the blanks, the process become harder, less exact. On the other hand, a thorough written record of the event may teach some surprising lessons.

Recent innovations in our understanding of flow path, fire dynamics, the chemistry of modern furnishings and construction methods have been developed through the scientific reconstruction of fire scenes. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), research and safety organizations and various forward-thinking fire departments have been working together to enhance safety by better understanding fire and how (and when) to interrupt the fire triangle/tetrahedron. It’s literally changing the way we understand fire in modern structures.

The IAFC, through a grant from FEMA’s AFG/Fire Prevention and Safety Grant Program, is in the process of helping you put research like this into practice. The Firefighter Safety Through Advanced Research (FSTAR) project is developing a searchable database of research so chiefs and company officers can search for a scientific study that may help to address specific problems their departments are facing.

In addition, industry experts, researchers and FSTAR are working together to create user-friendly summaries of cutting-edge research, fact sheets and other materials that translate research outcomes into information and resources the fire service can use. This effort to distill research down to its essential points will help fire chiefs, company officers and firefighters research tactics and better understand how we can safely and effectively do our jobs.

Visit FSTAResearch.org to start your search for this critical information.

None of this even gets started—no AFG grants, no NIST studies, no reports, no lessons learned—unless the initial report produced by your department is thorough and complete (and you are reporting to NFIRS, of course).

And, without understanding and analyzing your numbers, the parks and recreaction department is more likely to get their new initiative instead of you come budget time.

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