Why fire service data matters
Knowing the fire department's season and career stats are key to being an all star in the game of protecting life and property
A version of this article was previously published in the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs' Size Up magazine.
Let me get this fact out of the way: I love sports. In fact, there aren't many sports that I don't follow. And, when there is a chance of a record being broken or a milestone achieved, it certainly has my attention.
Why is it that we cheer on horses who have a chance to win the Triple Crown? Why is it we enjoy a pitcher throwing a perfect game, a hockey player completing the hat trick or a golfer winning all four majors?
It's because there are levels of excellence that spectators and fans like to see people and teams accomplish.
More importantly, athletes in any sport understand what they must do to be successful. Whether it is a collegiate player striving to advance to professional sports or a professional athlete aiming to win awards and eventually elected to their respective hall of fame, they know the statistics and the data they must compete against and excel above. In fact, their professions are driven by data and wins.
Likewise, firefighters are often compared to professional athletes due to the physical demands of the profession. We have training camps that we call recruit schools. We have strength and conditioning expectations, as our performance is mission critical, not award critical.
National Firefighting League
We function in a team environment depending on each other for the success of accomplishing goals just like team sports. Additionally, we wear different uniforms and patches that differentiate us from the others.
Even in some organizations, we have different teams differentiated by company, station or special discipline patches and T-shirts.
We have our own all-stars such as Brunacini, Brannigan, Eisner, Dunn, Salka, Lasky, Goldfeder and way too many more to mention. And like in sports, we have our rising stars in organizations around the nation who are the up and comers that will make their mark on the fire and emergency services profession just as the aforementioned have.
Unfortunately, that is where our comparison seems to stall. As I travel around the country and present “The Fire Prevention Paradox: Is our Culture Killing us," I like asking emergency responders (our version of pro-athletes) the question "How well do we know our data?"
In fact, there are a series of questions surrounding this theme.
- How many line of duty deaths have there been nationally and in your own state?
- What are the common causes?
- How many civilian fire deaths have there been nationally and in your own state?
- What have the trends shown us in each?
- What are the causes?
Periodically, I will ask about the value of property lost, property saved and inquire about fire codes, including sprinklers.
Unfortunately, the answers I get are typically silence, stares and questionable guesses. Don't rush to assumptions that it's just rookie firefighters. It's everyone from the fire chief, chief officers, company officers, firefighters, fire marshals and even public educators.
We should know average response times, ISO ratings, the jurisdiction's square miles and population and all the daily data we need to do our jobs such as hydrant pressures, GPMs and drip rates on IV fluids. Obviously that data is essential to our daily functions and we can easily access it and cognitively use it.
But we struggle with many of the things that make up our mission statement — primarily saving lives and property. Why is it important to know how many line-of-duty deaths there have been in the nation or state?
Why do we need to know how many civilian fire deaths there have been in our state and nation? Why do we care about the value of property lost and property saved?
My answer is that it is what contributes to making us a winning team.
Aside from boxing and wrestling, most professional athletes don't want to see other athletes injured. Likewise, fire and emergency service professionals are affected when a brother or sister is injured or lost in the line of duty.
In every way possible, we should know what the numbers and causes are so we can prevent them from happening again, as they directly affect us and our families.
Power in numbers
There is plenty of information available in National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports about firefighter fatalities that if we evaluated them, we might be able to learn enough so that we could reduce the chances of happening in our community.
The fire service declares its mission is to protect lives and property. While our bravery knows no boundaries to perform that very mission when the response begins, we often come very short of it in our prevention efforts, which in turn creates a paradox.
Basically we say one thing but do otherwise. Understanding the number of structure fires we respond to and knowing how many civilian fire injuries and fatalities occur can have an impact on meeting our mission. How so?
This isn't about the debate of interior versus exterior fire attack. This is about using information to help reduce fire occurrences and reduce its severity when we arrive.
If we see fire trends in our community or other communities — whether it be building construction, furnishings, specific age groups or even the success of residential sprinklers — couldn't that information be used elsewhere? If the numbers are significant, could we not use that information to lobby support from our community and decision-makers?
In my presentation, I routinely ask "how many feel that their elected officials believe the fire department is the black hole or money pit of the city or county?" Trust me, plenty of hands go up. I then ask, why, what has been done about it and who is the chief marketing officer of the organization?
Chief is the keyword. While it's easy to articulate the number of emergency responses, training hours, fire deaths and property loss, it takes time, effort, and research to demonstrate the value in property saved. Many are beginning to talk about property value saved, which is great. But let's go a step further.
If it was a commercial occupancy, what is the sales tax revenue for that business? How many jobs are affected? What does the loss of that business for a month, year or forever mean to the community in terms of revenue?
What does a residential occupancy have in regards to property value for other properties if it is a loss, or remains as a vacant lot? That means somebody is now re-located out of the community and spending their money elsewhere.
What is your ISO rating? If you lost rating value, what does that mean to people in your community? Simply, we feel depreciated because we let people form assumptions and we don't take the time often enough to demonstrate our value through data or by celebrating success.
Fire service professionals have a menu of blogs, news sites and newsletters that provide information on training, best practices and breaking news. Associations such as the IAFC, NVFC, IAFF and many local and state chief associations all have newsletters filled with information on best practices, current trends and other stories of interest.
I ask that you dig a little deeper and sign up for notifications from the United State Fire Administration. Take the time to review their site, as there is so much useful information.
As a friend and colleague of mine once said, "It's your union, pay your dues, get involved." To that extent, this is your fire service, pay your dues, know your data and get involved.