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Fire & Life Safety: The Role of Data - Focusing on the Right Need

Data-driven is a term that can be overused, misunderstood and even scoffed at sometimes. After all, don’t we already know what needs to be fixed and how?

Often, the answer is yes. However, data can be useful in maximizing efficiency and more quickly achieving results. A good example is the goal of reducing fires.

In my former jurisdiction, we all knew that fires in clothes dryers were the most common. However, when we decided to specifically target causes of fire deaths, injuries and property damage, we learned that dryer fires didn’t even make the top ten! If we had focused on reducing fires caused by dryers, our efforts, even if entirely successful, would have produced little change in our death, injury and property loss rates.

Data, balanced with the working knowledge and experience of our people, became our friend.

Every program must focus on a specific result and employ good data to be successful. The fire service is rich in programs that are generic in nature, focus on activities rather than results or continue because “we’ve always done it this way.” Valuable resources are wasted as good intentions and effort produce little change.

By using data to define and measure the intended result, we can more efficiently use our limited resources to achieve desired outcomes.

The most important ingredient of a successful program is reliable data, which is used in both identifying a problem and measuring the outputs to determine the result. We typically start with a question, such as, “How can I reduce (property loss, false alarms, falls, etc.)?”

To answer the question, you need to look at your incident data to define the problem in terms of three elements:

  • Cause – What, specifically, is causing the problem?
  • Reason – What does it cost (lives, property, resources, etc.)? You’re making the case not just for your agency, but for your governing board, community and potential sponsors and partners.
  • Target – Who’s involved? When and where does it occur?

The more specific the data, the more precise the targets and the more efficiently you’ll achieve the desired outcome. Rather than blanket an entire jurisdiction with a program, you can focus resources on the communities with a particular problem. Even particular demographics within the community can be targeted if census or proprietary data is used.

The sidebar below highlights the result of using data to clearly define a problem—cooking fires—to develop a program that specifically targets the problem’s cause.

Note that data analysis was first used to determine that cooking was the leading cause of fire injuries and deaths (but not property damage) in this jurisdiction. Data was also used in program development to establish and measure indicators (e.g., 40% reduction in injuries over three years) and to determine progress (e.g., residents employ safe cooking techniques, respond to cooking fires appropriately) that would achieve the results (e.g., residential cooking-fire risks and losses are prevented or mitigated).

If your data is incomplete or unreliable, address that immediately with your crews. Their understanding of how it’s being used in your agency and community—the importance factor—combined with ongoing training may help resolve the data issue.

In the interim, talk with your fire investigators; they may have better, more-specific information. Others who share the problem may also be able to offer real or anecdotal data, such as medical professionals and caregivers in the case of falls. You may also garner resources for your program by involving others who benefit from achieving the result.

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