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No Data, No Problem

Recently, I decided to explore where my husband and I are spending our money. Employing the power of an excel spreadsheet, I meticulously went through the last two months of credit card transactions. This act was inspired from a bit of a competitive challenge between us; he, sure I am spending far too much money at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore (I am a seasoned shopper) and me, sure he was spending far too much on wine (he loves very good and usually expensive wine). 

Data is important. Data tells the truth. It turns out the data showed that our money was getting spent on groceries. There are various ways of garnering data. Gut-feelings, as illustrated above, are not always accurate.  

The former fire marshal and deputy chief of Vancouver (Washington) Fire Department and just-retired leader of Vision 20/20, Jim Crawford, said it best. “No data, no problem. No problem, no money.” This simple, succinct, and memorable quote helped build the foundation for community risk reduction, helped pen successful grant outcomes, and has resulted in many fire departments across the nation successfully implementing risk reduction programs, which are genuinely saving lives. How do we know this? Because we have data.

As a fire marshal from a small jurisdiction – our call volume just topped over 2,000 calls for service last year – we have a reasonably accurate gut-feeling of our top three calls.  

Providing fire and EMS response, without any question, our number one call (and most likely yours as well) are falls. When our monthly NFIRS reports are generated, falls stay top on our list, month after month.

It is how we gather this data that becomes quite relevant. For example, some would argue that wine should be in the grocery column. Had I included wine in my grocery column, the data would be irrelevant and quite skewed.  

Until recently, some of us chiefs went to our NFIRS screen and entered “false alarm” for a smoke alarm, which sounded from a cooking event. Wrong, wrong, wrong. That smoke alarm worked. It was not a false alarm. How can we track the false alarms from the real alarms unless we input the data correctly? Skewed data is bad data. The fire service must understand – have it ingrained – what a vital part data plays in community risk reduction. Data is an asset that, when adequately captured, will help emergency services make educated decisions “Is it a false alarm just because dispatch placed you in service?” Or were you put in service because the caller solved the problem before you arrived? The alarm activated for a reason, justify the call, and take the time to find out what happened. Food on the stove is not a false alarm. The smoke alarm did its job and activated appropriately.

This is just one example of where we get ourselves into trouble in the fire service as we attempt to collect data in the effort to make good decisions. Data inputters must have clear and consistent guides for data entry. All of us must take responsibility in these cases and do the right thing for the public by helping them with the problem of the food on the stove fire. Code the call the right way, 113 Cooking fire involving the contents of a cooking vessel without fire extension beyond the vessel, and not as a false alarm or false call. Take the extra effort to call Dispatch and find out the real reason why you were stood down en-route.   

The NFIRS system can be mindboggling at times; however, if we have inconsistencies at a local level, how reliable is our data on a national level? This is why it is crucial to code information correctly. It is essential to question whether a bottle of wine goes under the grocery code or the entertainment code? Don’t skew your data to make filling out NFIRS quicker. The data must be accurate and complete to be a valuable asset. Now more than ever, it is crucial to fill out the special COVID-19 study recently added to the NFIRS data collection tool. Otherwise, it is, as the adage goes, “garbage in, garbage out.” And with no entries, there is no garbage to report at all. Also, not a good option!

As we gather our incident data for our communities, big or small, accurate data is mandatory. Without accurate data, we will be making wrong decisions; not doing the best we can with public money, and not doing the best things we can do to take care of our communities. It is critical to ensure our data outcomes are as accurate and transparent as possible. 

Now that I know my spending-habit at the ReStore is not a high spending item in our household, I am off to do a walk-around, being very careful not to slip and fall during my shopping time there. And to make sure the data stays in my favor, I will be purchasing with cash today!

Before I end, and since we are talking about data, I would also like to share with you that the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) is using the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) to conduct a national-level special study on fire department responses to the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. 

The goal of the study is to help fire departments consistently document fire department calls to suspected or confirmed incidents involving COVID-19.  The Basic Module Special Study ID #9244 Collection level for the National Participants such as Fire departments that participate in with the NFIRS started January 1, 2020, and will run through December 31, 2022. Software Vendors must add the COVID-19 Special Study ID #9244 to their reporting tools to allow customers to participate in the study.

Important to know, right. Make sure you are gathering and inputting useful data. Doing this will help you make good decisions, keeping you and your community reducing risk and will help gather critical COVID-19 data as we all take the information collected to understand the impacts more effectively.

Stay safe out there. 

Chief Kathy Clay is the battalion chief fire marshal of Jackson Hole (Wyoming) Fire/EMS. She holds an IAFC and Missouri Valley Division membership and sits on the Wyoming Governor’s Council on Fire Prevention. She also represents the International Association of Wildland Fire (IAWF) on the Vision 20/20 Steering Committee and is a former IAWF board member. Clay is the fire investigator for Teton County (Wyoming) and is a member of the International Association of Arson Investigators.


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