Perspectives from a 40-year veteran of the fire service profession
Significance of Fire Analysis
The largest forest fires in California occurred in the last three years. The largest forest fire in size and fatalities in U.S. history burned 3.8 million acres and killed at least 1,500 people across Michigan and Wisconsin in October 1871. The worst urban fire in U.S. history killed more than 300 people in Chicago that same week. Without this information, we would still understand that fires are a symptom of greater problems, but local, state and federal organizations could not make precise budgetary or other resource decisions. These inaccurate budgetary decisions could lead to fewer firefighters who may not be adequately trained in the right forest suppression needs for a given area. More lives could be lost.
After the economic boom of the post–World War II era, the resultant unfettered growth began to manifest in ways that threatened all the achievements and advancements in fire service. This came in the form of highly contaminated watersheds, significant air pollution, and products that posed unimaginable safety hazards in our homes, businesses, hospitals, schools, and the products we consumed.
The Beginnings of Fire Data Collection
In 1971, the Nixon administration created the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control. Over a two-year period, the commission conducted research on the national fire epidemic and on May 4, 1973, presented President Nixon with their final report: “America Burning.” A national call to action for the American fire service, all 19 findings and recommendations from the report were put into action. Some of the recommendations included:
- Creation of a national database for the collection of and dissemination of data specific to the number and types of incidents fire departments respond to annually. This system is called the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS). Along with the number and types of incidents, NFIRS also captures data on injuries and fatalities of both civilians and firefighters as well as the cause and origin of the fire. Initially, the system was designed to only capture data on fire-related emergencies, but EMS information was included years later.
- Creation of the U.S. Fire Administration
- Creation of the National Fire Academy
- Creation of a National Training Standard for Firefighters
- Creation of a Consumer Product Safety Council
As a fifth-generation fire service professional with nearly 40 years under my belt, I have lived and breathed the changes to fire service from this groundbreaking report. I started in the Fire Service in June of 1978, and at that time the only records departments kept were in books stored at each fire station where company officers tracked their daily station activities, both emergency and non-emergency. Emergency calls were logged in red and administrative activities were logged in black ink.
When NFIRS was introduced to the fire service, we reported incidents on paper forms. It was a very tedious process, and many departments opted not to participate. For the stations that did report NFIRS activities, someone in the fire station, usually the rookie firefighter, would pull out the station logbook or journal and tally all the incidents by type and the training activities. Then, the fire chief would write his report to the State Fire Marshal, who compiled the information for their state and reported it to the U.S. Fire Administration.
Thankfully, with the advent of desktop computers and the internet, the number of fire departments participating in NFIRS increased significantly. Over the past 45 years, the U.S. Fire Administration has grown considerably in its collection, use, and dissemination of the data they collect. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has taken on a major role in how this data is used to improve many aspects of fire service. NFPA provides information and knowledge through more than 300 consensus codes and standards, research, training, education, outreach, and advocacy.
Some of the best resources highlight the health and safety of firefighters, such as:
- NFPA-1500 Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, deployment of fire department resources for both career and volunteer organizations
- NFPA-1710 Standard for the Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations
- Emergency Medical Operations and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments
- NFPA-1720 Standard for the Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations and Special Operations to the Public by Volunteer Fire Departments.
Perhaps one of the most important refinements to come out of the NFIRS initiative is how the fire service now looks at response data as a process of analyzing outcomes, rather than only from a volume perspective.
For the fire service as an industry to successfully reduce loss of life and property from fire, data analysis must be a critical element of this reality. Fire service leaders must be able to identify trends in the number and types of incidents and determine ways to address and reduce the risk factors causing certain types of incidents such as:
- Cooking fires
- Children playing with matches
- Installation of working smoke detectors
- Fall prevention for elderly populations
- Childhood drowning prevention
- Reducing fires in the wildland/urban interface zones
- Reduction of injuries to children in vehicle accidents through use of car seats that are properly installed by trained professionals
- Ensuring family members escape their home in the event of fire
- Development of hazard mitigation plans to address risks to critical infrastructure
- Emergency Response and Management Plans to prepare communities for extreme disasters.
Each of the examples listed above are hazards that have been greatly reduced over the years because of data collection and analysis that was turned into action by fire service leaders at all levels: national, state, and local. National data like this is available from the NFPA’s and other similar organizations’ websites. Fire leadership can use the aggregated data, standards, statistics, and recommendations from the NFPA and others to set up localized data gathering. Understanding how the local community’s statistics compare to national data may allow fire leadership to make more informed budgetary and resource decisions, develop customized community education and advocacy, guide training, and develop more tailored outcomes that applies to the local community.
Public Consulting Group (PCG) aims to help fire leadership by providing intelligent, focused data analysis as an integral component to PCG’s Public Safety Consulting Services client engagements. Our goal is to develop risk reduction strategies and overall public safety standards improvements that have positive impacts on communities and the organizations serving them. We provide our clients with concise narratives and visually compelling recommendations supported by data analysis that examine:
- Budget/fiscal analysis
- Response time analysis
- EMS analysis (transport vs. non-transport)
- Standards of Coverage (fire station locations and response times)
- Compliance with dispatch standards (call answering, processing, and dispatching)
Summary Data Points
- Easily accessed national and historical fire data is invaluable to local, state, and national fire leadership.
- Data and data analysis allows fire leadership to make informed decisions and improve community health outcomes.
- The National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) came from the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control in the Nixon administration. NFIRS is a national database for the collection of and dissemination of data specific to the number and types of incidents fire departments respond to annually.
- The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) provides information and knowledge through more than 300 consensus codes and standards, research, training, education, outreach, and advocacy.
- Fire leadership may access data from NFIRS, NFPA, and other organizations like them to develop a comparison of local data to national data to better improve local health outcomes.
 NFPA statistics – Deadliest fires and explosions in U.S. history
 What’s the deadliest fire in U.S. history? It happened in Peshtigo, Wis., in 1871. – The Washington Post
 FG 170 (National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control) (White House Central Files: Subject Files) | Richard Nixon Museum and Library (nixonlibrary.gov)