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Using data analysis to discover hidden KSAs in the fire service

Qualitative data can identify firefighter knowledge, skills and abilities that can shape their role, benefiting them and the department


Photo/Santa Rosa Fire Department

We’re collecting a wealth of information about fire behavior and fire service response. FireRescue1’s special coverage series, Embracing the data revolution in the fire service, sponsored by ESO, explores strategies for translating this data to actionable steps to improve operations, optimally direct fire response and maximize firefighter safety.


When most people think about data, they think about numbers: spreadsheets, charts and graphs. It’s true that quantitative data involves counting and measuring things, and provides answers to questions of how many, how much and to what extent, as well as who is involved and when things happen.

But data isn’t only about these factors. Another kind of data can answer questions about why things have happened, how events developed and what might come next. This type of data is qualitative.

The two types of data are not mutually exclusive; on the contrary, they complement each other to determine not only what is currently happening, but why, and what might be possible in the future.

Qualitative data can be used to understand and fully use existing and potential resources. One example of such data gathering would be conducting a knowledge, skills and abilities (KSA) inventory among current fire department members.

Measuring, identifying firefighter KSAs

Firefighters must have certain KSAs to be eligible and qualified for their position. In many jurisdictions, these KSAs are measured by certifications and performance standards.

But every firefighter brings more to the job than just what is explicitly required. All individuals who come to your organization have long and distinct histories of education, upbringing, life experience and personal interests that make them unique, with the potential to enrich your department.

However, these skills and abilities are only useful if the organization is aware of them and utilizes them effectively.

Some fire departments have taken the initiative to ask their members about their abilities and interests, collecting that information and creating a database that can be drawn upon for many purposes.

For any kind of data to be useful, it must be informative – understood in context, managed in a way to be accessible and, ultimately, applied and used. It’s not enough to ask the questions; you must interpret the answers so the maximum benefit is derived for both the organization and the individual.

Create a firefighter KSA inventory

Consider creating categories and asking specific questions to create a KSA inventory of your firefighters, such as:

  • What languages other than English do you have proficiency in?
  • Do you have programming or other technical skills? Are you proficient with social media platforms?
  • Do you have mechanical or trade skills? In what specific area?
  • What kind of experience do you have with teaching, mentoring or coaching?
  • Do you have writing skills? In what context?
  • Do you have KSAs related to fitness, health or nutrition?
  • Do you have interests or hobbies that are fire-service adjacent, such as technical climbing?

In addition to identifying these KSAs, members should also be asked if they are interested in using these abilities as members of the fire department.

Once firefighters have self-identified KSAs and indicated an interest in using these abilities, the critical next step is for the department to follow up and offer ways for these abilities to be applied in the context of the job.

Obviously, not every specific skill can be directly used. For example, if someone on the department lived for years in Iceland and speaks Icelandic, this skill would have limited usefulness if there is no one in the community who speaks this language.

But don’t overlook the bigger picture – someone who has mastered a second language is often generally more open and comfortable with learning new language skills and might be a good candidate for involvement with language outreach programs.

Interpreting and using data analysis

The key to any data-gathering initiative, whether it is quantitative or qualitative, is interpreting and using the information obtained. Asking someone to be open about their interests and abilities and then never following up in any way will discourage people from stepping up in the future, and even create cynicism that can undermine morale.

Firefighters come to the job with a wealth of experience beyond just firefighting. To ignore this experience, or to discourage any initiative among new members (“Your job is to get on the engine when the alarm goes off and otherwise keep your mouth shut”) is to waste resources in times when emergency services agencies need access to every asset available to meet their ever-changing needs.

Uncover unrecognized resources in your department

Years ago, a chief from a large urban fire department shared a story that remained with me. His department was struggling to find appropriate software to use for complex building inspections. The effort was frustrating, consuming large amounts of time and money, and still the department had not found what it was looking for.

The problem was a topic of discussion during a high-level staff meeting the chief was attending. This department assigned newer firefighters as chiefs’ drivers, and this chief was accompanied that day by his driver, a first-year firefighter in his early 30s.

Normally, the job of chief’s driver under such circumstances was to be available and invisible. But as the chiefs discussed the problem, one of them noticed the new firefighter had tentatively raised his hand. When they acknowledged him, he said, “Before I became a firefighter last year, I was a senior programmer at a large software company. I can write that software for you if you want.”

This department jumped on the opportunity, temporarily reassigning the firefighter while he worked on the special project. In the end, the department received customized software, and the firefighter was able to contribute: a win-win situation.

But how many fire departments are likely to unintentionally discourage a new firefighter to step up in this way? How many fire departments have deep resources among their members that go unrecognized, unused and unappreciated?

You can’t use what you don’t know you have. Qualitative data gathering through a skills inventory is one way to fully use the resource that is hidden right in front of you.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.