President`s Letter: The Data Dilemma

In case you haven’t heard or observed lately, we’re very much living in a data-driven age.

Where businesses may have once relied on past history and instincts, now almost all major decisions are based on collected and analyzed data. In politics, there is no shortage of data in terms of scientific polling that influence elections and legislation.

Even in our personal lives, including our finances, purchases and relationships, we’re increasingly researching information to guide us in our life choices.

Another of the five wicked problems identified by IAFC members was that of data. Specifically, there remains a failure to collect, develop and disseminate meaningful and current fire service data that both helps inform national fire service policy and can help local government decision makers.

Furthermore, the increasing use of data systems and improved capabilities to analyze large datasets demand a renewed effort to integrate existing systems to provide robust analysis and application.

To boil it down for the fire service, in terms of data, it comes down to what data is necessary, what is useful and how we should use it to better our service. Thus the data dilemma.

The good news is that we have more information available to us than at any time in the past. We also have the technology to store and analyze vast amounts of data.

However, with all this information we seem to either be overwhelmed by it, interpret it incorrectly or with bias, or even ignore it when it doesn’t tell us what we want.

Another problem is that of consistent analysis. It’s absolutely amazing that in this day and age, different fire service organizations can collect and examine the very same data and yet draw entirely different conclusions. This not only causes confusion, but also calls into question the validity of our data when we use it to justify our positions and initiatives.

One example of good data use that I believe is worthy of mention is that of my friend Fire Chief Mike Duyck of Tualatin Valley (Ore.) Fire Rescue. I’ve become very impressed with their collection, analysis and use of data in virtually every aspect of their operations. This has led to data-based decision-making in terms of efficiency and effectiveness.

Several may view some of these decisions as radical or even controversial, as they depart from traditional service delivery, but the results have been obvious improvements in service and use of resources.

Earlier this year, your IAFC officers met with the U.S. Fire Administrator Chief Ernie Mitchell (and IAFC President 2003-2004). He’s very candid in his assessment of the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) and that it’s not currently serving the data needs of the nation’s fire service.

But Chief Mitchell also has an improvement plan that if properly funded would make significant improvements in the NFIRS. The IAFC supports the USFA in this effort and is actively lobbying congress for the necessary funding.

Another initiative we support is the development of the National Fire Operations Reporting System (NFORS). The NFORS project is working to create a national reporting system to allow local fire departments to optimize their response availability, capability and effectiveness of on-scene performance.

The IAFC supports this effort and is involved through the representation of Past President Bill Metcalf (2013-2014). Even more encouraging is that part of Chief Mitchell’s plan for NFIRS is for it to be able to interface with NFORS, creating a more consolidated fire-data system.

The importance of addressing this data dilemma can’t be understated. As you read this, other non-fire organizations are collecting and analyzing data related to the fire and emergency service and creating a narrative for policymakers that should be of great concern to us all.

While this can’t be stopped, it can be counteracted if and when we all commit to a consistent, accurate and collective fire service data system.

To be honest, many of us fear something like this. But are we more afraid of what we will find out for ourselves or what others may find out for us?

G. Keith Bryant
President and Chairman of the Board

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