Applying Plato’s 4 cardinal virtues when analyzing fire data
Implementing these principles can help maximize the impact of the information
By Leonard N. Chan
In 375 B.C., the Greek philosopher Plato identified the four human virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. He considered these characteristics of human behavior to be cardinal, from “cardo,” the Latin word for hinge, or “that on which other things depend.”
Despite their abstract and idealistic qualities, the cardinal virtues can (and should!) be applied to the seemingly detached and impersonal nature of fire data analysis. Implementing these four principles can help maximize the impact of the data’s findings.
Common dictionary definitions of prudence describe it as “the ability to govern and discipline oneself by the use of reason” or the “skill and good judgment in the use of resources,” both of which are critical for fire data analysts.
Historically, fire service leaders recognize that addressing public safety requires more than emotions and instincts. The NFPA has collected data and conducted research since its inception, and Congress established the U.S. Fire Administration “to help place solutions to the fire problem on a firmer foundation of scientific data.” However, despite these continuous efforts, fire service stakeholders still echo the concern that “an appalling gap in data and information that effectively separated us from sure knowledge of various aspects of the fire problem” persists and was first cited in the 1973 landmark report “America Burning.”
Prudence, in terms of fire service data, does not stop at data collection but also includes the ability to appropriately interpret the information, which requires a working knowledge of the fire service. Discernment is necessary in determining how a fire department dedicates its resources to data-related activities. For example, research into how to reduce false alarms likely has a more significant impact on departmental resources than shaving a few seconds from a turnout time. By the same token, fire analysts must also have the prudence to understand that quantitative data should never be the sole factor in decision-making.
Defined as the quality of being correct, impartial and fair, justice should be a guiding principle for all in the fire service, but especially in terms of data analysis.
Fire analysts implicitly act with justice by understanding that each feedback form, training record and incident report has its own story. Data analysis can support efforts by providing accountability and identifying areas for improvement. Caution must be taken, however, in not solely relying on statistics to cast blame regarding turnout times, apparatus collisions or training deficiencies. Justice requires due diligence in understanding the how and why of the data, which includes discussing issues with those involved, understanding gaps in information, and recognizing unusual and unique circumstances.
Artificial intelligence continues to progress at a rapid rate, but software applications may act with impunity rather than with justice when the proper care is not taken – this also applies in developing service delivery plans. A just approach in the delivery of emergency services appropriately matches capabilities to potential risk. Myriad variables beyond population and property values, such as underlying socioeconomic and environmental conditions, need to be considered when conducting these calculations. Individuals should have the same expectation of public safety as anyone else in the community, regardless of their condition. Placement of resources should be equitable as political considerations are ignored. Once these conditions are met, only then does a fire department act with justice.
Fortitude is defined as the “strength of mind that enables a person to encounter danger or bear pain or adversity with courage.” Fire analysts need a different type of courage than that of their fire colleagues who respond to emergency incidents. The fortitude required is not in testing the computing limits of a software application or adopting a new format in an annual report but rather the ability to withstand pressure to manipulate data analysis results.
The obligation of fire analysts to their chiefs and elected officials is to provide honest analysis that can be used to identify and address problems. Retroactively generating justifications to predetermined decisions is not the role of an analyst. Inconvenient findings will inevitably occur. For example, the case for expanding a special operations team may not be justified by existing risks, or identifying the urgent need to replace an apparatus may undercut efforts to reduce a municipality’s overall budget. Although the fire analyst likely lacks decision making authority, they require the fortitude to continue building on evidence to make a case irrefutable under pressure.
Temperance, defined as the “avoidance of extremes in one’s actions, beliefs, or habits,” is critical for an analyst serving in the fire service – an industry known for the pride in its traditions. As mentioned above, the analysis conducted may not always align with the biases of those in authority – a difficult position to be in, considering the fire service’s hierarchical structure. Analysts should take a level-headed approach when discussing their findings, as a frustrated or angry demeanor or delivery can delegitimize the message.
However, temperance does not mean innovation cannot be pursued. New ideas can be piloted before being implemented at a larger scale, and novel concepts can be connected to existing ideas and practices to reduce their foreign nature. Respecting existing traditions will likely breed more respect and increase the likelihood of departmental support.
Apply the virtues consistently for maximum impact
Technical competency alone does not define a quality fire analyst; the role must also be oriented toward something far grander. The four cardinal virtues – prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance – should serve as the foundation for all other values. These virtues must be practiced consistently to become an inherent part of the process, empowering fire analysts to make long-lasting, positive impacts on their communities.
About the author
Leonard N. Chan is the accreditation manager for the Houston Fire Department. He also chairs the Texas Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE) consortium and has conducted over 10 agency accreditation peer reviews. The NFPA has appointed Chan as a principal member on the inaugural technical committee for fire analyst professional qualifications. He previously served on the staff with Cedar Park Fire Department and Texas Sunset Advisory Commission. Chan graduated with Master of Public Administration from the University of Houston and is the current president of its alumni association. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Rice University in political science, religious studies, and history, where he continues to mentor fire service-related research projects. Chan is a recipient of the CPSE Cliff Jones Ambassador Award (2023), Cedar Park Fire Department’s Distinguished Service Ribbon (2018) and Distinguished Service Award (2014) as well as Rice University Builders’ Award (2018) and Lovett College’s Distinguished Associate Award (2023).