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Make Better Decisions: Put Your Data to Work

Welcome to the age of thinking data-first. What does that mean to a fire chief? Data-informed fire chiefs are ready with facts to make strategic organizational decisions. They ask such questions as:

  • How well matched is the department to serve its unique demographic profile?
  • How does the cost of property loss last year compare to the past?
  • Are personnel and apparatus deployed to get the most from the community’s investment?
  • How do current resources compare to future needs?

Fact-based analysis can help predict where and how emergency services may be needed in the future, thereby reducing uncertainty, controlling costs and preventing and mitigating causes that lead to loss of life and property. The future isn’t always like the past, but data trends and patterns help tell the story based on facts.

Kate Dargan, former California state fire marshal and CEO of Intterra Inc., contends that three principal factors are fueling the trend toward data analysis in the fire service:

  • A growing comfort level with technology resulting from an increasing use of consumer market-oriented devices and related personal interaction with data.
  • Financial pressures on fire departments to account for their budgets and related expenditures.
  • Demographic shifts in departments as members in their 30s and 40s reach decision-making roles.

With this cultural shift, she sees a need to create the role of chief information officer in larger departments. A CIO can emphasize the importance of information and analysis and promote data-based decision-making in everyday operations.

Paul Rottenberg, president of FireStats LLC, cautions, “Make sure the fire department is measuring the right thing.” For example, when asked about placing a fifth station in one community, he asked instead if the four existing stations are optimally placed, based on the data, and if not, what options there are for relocating or better utilizing them.

Reliable, Science-based Analysis

Rottenberg contends the fire service needs more science-based analysis, that fire departments have let a few studies influence decades of operations when more science-based study is needed.

It’s not just fire responses that require in-depth analysis, he says. “Use of external data bases such as public health demographics can help predict where EMS responses occur based on trends. Aging, prevalence of obesity and diabetes within a given jurisdiction can have a significant effect on health outcomes in emergency admissions.” Using such third-party data sources is key to future organizational success.

Fire departments can access ISO’s Fire Chief Online resource, a property-insurance database of over 2.5 million commercial buildings. According to ISO, over 12,000 fire chiefs already have free, password-secured access to commercial building information for structures located in their towns. The data is produced through on-site visits by ISO field staff to collect rating and underwriting details, such as building construction, business occupancy, installed fire protection and specific hazards.

Imagine the power of that data incorporated into a fire department’s preplan information.

Obstacles to Data Collection and Analysis

Data quality control is one of the most serious issues facing departments today, according to Chief Ronny Coleman, IAFC President 1988-1989 and president of Fireforceone. He sees the criticality of relying on good data, but, he says, many chiefs don’t sense the importance of reporting and analyzing local fire data. Because the fire service hasn’t done a good job in collecting data, “we are missing funding opportunities.”

Coleman points to a recent project designed to help departments in smaller California communities measure risk-reduction efforts using simple data-analysis tools. One benefit to simplified analysis is that it’s more easily understood by local officials who relate to clear, fact-based information.

All fire departments manufacture a lot of data every day. Data flows from fire and BLS/ALS EMS incidents, training activities, building inspections, water-flow testing and apparatus and hose testing. These data sources and more are critical to self-evaluation and future goal setting.

But a fire chief needs a plan, the tools and the will to face facts head-on. As Chief Jeff Johnson, president of the Western Fire Chiefs Association and IAFC President 2009-2010, says, “I’d much rather know first-hand my department’s strengths and weaknesses and develop my own plan for improvement than have it handed to me.”

Create an honest relationship between the level of risk and the available resources that exist in the jurisdiction. “Deal with the issues and move forward,” Johnson states. “Let the data tell its own story.”

For example, Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue found that 3 of 10,000 fire alarm activations were for fires, but 28 of 100 medical calls to the department required admitting the patient to the hospital.

According to Chief Mark McLees of the Syracuse (N.Y.) Fire Department, his department began to rely on quality data some years ago. Mobile data terminals installed in apparatus synch with the county dispatch system; they utilize a data-management program to comprehensively record all related incident information. “We can smartly interrogate the related data for the over 25,000 incidents that occurred in the city in 2011.”

He added that especially in today’s financial environment, “It is absolutely required to have fact-based data regarding fire department performance to convince city hall to move forward on such essentials as replacement of retiring firefighters.”

To ensure their data is reliable, the department’s first-line supervisors have to embrace their responsibility in developing quality data. But as good as data-measurement tools are, you must weigh the benchmark data against local experience. “You still need to keep in mind that no matter what, your own city can be unique in its specific hazard characteristics … What works for one community may not automatically work for another.”

Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell, assistant to the IAFF’s general president, believes the fire service doesn’t always have the right information to tell its story in a convincing manner. She contends it’s essential to collect and analyze the few critical data elements needed rather than design an unwieldy process to collect too many data points.

She notes that some departments have prevented proposed cuts in staffing by relying on data, an effort she that should be broadened across the country. “If we can’t do this,” she says, “the demise of fire departments is in front of us.”

Suggested Actions for Chief Officers

Here are some next steps to take:

  • Make a commitment to data-first – Resolve to manage your department guided with facts. In dealing with facts, the department can win the respect of internal and external customers. Incorporate the data-first mantra into the department’s day-to-day operation to send a positive message to all involved.
  • Take ownership of your data – Develop a department-wide commitment to collecting accurate data, and participate in the NFIRS program. Encourage the use of quality data in every aspect of your department’s reporting functions. It’s not about paperwork; it’s about making the strongest case for your department in a challenging environment. Build impressive levels of trust by leading the charge for accountability and transparency based on quality data.
  • Quantify your department’s strengths and weaknesses – Pick operational benchmarks based on the national criteria that make the most sense for your community. Whether it is NFPA, CPSE, ISO or a combination, select the most appropriate targets, measure against them and run comparative analyses to see how your department stacks up. Let the data tell the story.

Fire departments have the opportunity to challenge the status quo and embrace a data-first approach. We must construct sustainable and resilient organizations built for the future. We can change and prosper in the new environment by transforming fire service data into compelling information, worthy of the rich tradition.

Michael R. Waters, CFPS, is a consultant and assistant fire chief in Jackson, N.J. He recently retired from ISO, Inc. as vice president.

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