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4 data points that all fire chiefs should know

Chiefs should be knowledgeable about key community risks and operational deployment data


According to the Digitization of the World, today, more than 5 billion consumers interact with data every day, and by 2025, that number will be 6 billion, or 75% of the world’s population. In 2025, each connected person will have at least one data interaction every 18 seconds.

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In the coming years, data will produce more data, break boundaries, drive innovation, and create new challenges and concerns throughout the world.

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According to the Digitization of the World, today, more than 5 billion consumers interact with data every day, and by 2025, that number will be 6 billion, or 75% of the world’s population. In 2025, each connected person will have at least one data interaction every 18 seconds. These predictions are stunning, yet the magnitude of the overall impact of data is likely underestimated.

The impact of data on the fire service is often underestimated as well. There are numerous areas within a fire department where data are needed. Some data assets are readily available and others more elusive. Regardless, fire chiefs and other officers need data for immediate and long-term decision-making.

So, what are the top datasets or categories of information necessary to be an informed and effective fire service leader? Let us first consider four data categories, associated data tools, and performance metrics available related to community risks and operational resource deployment.

1. Community Risk Assessment

Understanding threats, hazards and associated risks will make it easier for decision-makers to determine what level of emergency response capability they should build and sustain. There are various community risk assessment (CRA) models in the public safety environment. Most follow a baseline approach to determining what hazards/risks exist in the community (including the built environment, population, and natural phenomenon) and the potential impact of an adverse risk event.
FEMA developed a CRA process that all levels of government can use. The Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) identifies and assesses threats and hazards in a community. The process also uses capability targets to translate the likely impacts of events into goals for community preparedness and overall response/mitigation capability. For fire departments, this process translates into the question, “How well does the fire department deploy resources to match the risk event to which firefighters are responding?”

At the national level, THIRA establishes capability targets for the nation to address. At the fire department level, chief officers and their designees have access to the Fire Community Assessment/Response Evaluation System (FireCARES) funded by DHS/FEMA/AFG. FireCARES includes datasets that combine parcel data (built environment) that has been hazard coded based on NFPA low-, medium- and high-hazard level definitions. The system also includes 14-plus years of historic fire incident data that have been geocoded, plus census demographic data.

These data sets are analyzed using a regression model to assess the risk of fire, fire spread, and risk of death and injury from the fire for every fire department jurisdiction in the U.S. FireCARES is free to every U.S. fire department.

2. Community Demographics

There are several datasets available in the federal sector that can be extremely useful at the local level. For example, the U.S. Census is conducted every 10 years to provide an official count of the U.S. population. The 2020 Census data will be available soon for reference and use. The Census holds more data than just a population count. Other data variables in the Census include ethnicity breakdowns, income, and housing value – all relevant to local fire departments for risk assessment and response planning.
Another relevant data set within the Census that is collected more frequently is the American Community Survey (ACS). The ACS data show how people live life. The dataset includes information on education, housing, jobs, and the social and economic needs of local communities. Results from the ACS may be used to decide where new fire stations or additional response units are needed.

One more useful dataset in this category is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Social Vulnerability Index (SVI). The CDC SVI uses 15 Census variables and is intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during or after disasters. Social vulnerability refers to the potential for negative effects on communities caused by external stresses on human health and wellbeing. These stressors typically include natural or human-caused disasters, or disease outbreaks like COVID-19. However, it can be equally useful in CRR efforts to reduce social vulnerability to fire and other emergencies, thereby decreasing injury, death and economic loss.

3. Current Capabilities

Another FEMA assessment product, known as the Stakeholder Preparedness Review (SPR), measures preparedness capabilities and analyzes gaps between current capability and capability targets or the capability gap. The SPR enables communities to measure current capabilities and the gaps that are preventing them from reaching their capability targets, and helps develop strategies to close those gaps.
For the fire service, discussions about capabilities typically focus on response. Response capabilities include call intake and dispatch, station location, mobile and personnel asset deployment, and preparedness training. While these are all important, it is equally important to consider how community risk reduction (CRR) efforts can help close capability gaps.

For future reference, FEMA is developing a suite of assessment products, known collectively as the National Risk and Capability Assessment (NRCA), that will measure risk and capability across the nation in a standardized and coordinated process. Local fire departments should be prepared to contribute to this product with their own risk assessment and response data. The National Fire Operations Reporting System (NFORS), funded by DHS/FEMA/AFG, was designed to assist local departments with this measurement effort and more. NFORS uses existing data to assess the impact of fire department response availability, capability and operational effectiveness on the outcome of a fire or other emergency. Optimizing resource deployment and on-scene capability to match the risk level of the emergency minimizes the occurrence of firefighter injury and death, civilian injury and death, and property loss.

4. Emergency Response Performance (Operations)

There are key performance measures that fire departments should be tracking to make meaningful operational decisions. Today, there are new methods for capturing the data needed for those measures, making it easier for fire service leaders to use data to effect change at the administrative, company and individual firefighter levels. These data and operational measures also hold information for training officers. This performance information can illuminate areas of department strengths and operational deficits, promoting continuous improvement and budgeting for future changes.
NFPA 1710: Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, EMS and Special Operations in Career Fire Departments (2020) has several performance objectives that are useful to fire department leaders. The objectives provide an industry benchmark by which fire departments can measure their performance. Examples of 1710 measures:

  • Alarm Answering Time: 15 seconds for 95% of calls; 40 seconds for 99% of calls
  • Alarm Processing Time: 64 seconds for 90% of calls; 106 seconds for 95% of calls
  • Turnout Time: 60 seconds for EMS responses; 80 seconds for fire responses
  • First Engine Arrive on Scene Time: 240 seconds (4 minutes) for 90% of responses with a minimum staffing of 4 personnel
  • Second Company Arrive on Scene Time: 360 seconds (6 minutes) for 90% of responses with a minimum staffing of 4 personnel
  • Initial Full Alarm – Low and Medium Hazard Assembly Time: 480 seconds (8 minutes) on 90% of responses
  • Initial Full Alarm – High Hazard/High-Rise Assembly Time: 610 seconds (10 minutes 10 seconds) on 90% of responses

There are several other relevant emergency response data points and operational measures.

Staffing/crew size is an important determinant in assembling an effective response force on scene. Crew size also determines which tasks can be accomplished once a unit arrives on scene. For example, a first-in engine with three-person crew cannot engage in interior firefighting until a second unit arrives to accomplish the OSHA requirement for two-in/two-out (unless a known life hazard is present). While two-in/two-out is well understood within the fire service, decision-makers at the municipal level may not fully understand the requirement’s impact on operations and therefore the impact of crew size reductions on performance.

First unit arrival denotes the first-arriving fire department vehicle with the potential to intervene in the situation and curtail or stop the escalation of the incident. In the absence of on-scene task times, if crew size and structure type are known, first unit arrival time can be used as a proxy for estimation of tasks like water-on-fire time.

Initial alarm arrival (effective response force assembly) means that, given expected on-scene conditions, the number of on-duty members sent in an initial alarm should be determined through task analysis. This analysis should consider life hazard protected population, safe and effective performance, potential property loss, hazard levels of properties, and tactics employed. The timing of the complete assembly of personnel assets is significant to ensuring risk control tasks can be implemented in a timely and effective manner. For example, on the fireground, coordinating ventilation with water on the fire is an absolute and requires enough personnel to complete both tasks.

Intervention time is the time that responders arriving on scene engage to stop the emergency. For EMS, this time is typically when the responders are at a patient’s side. For fire response, this time may be documented as water on fire time, given that this intervention time is a critical indicator of operational performance and stopping risk escalation.

More information: The Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association has established a position on operational performance measures. The statement notes that performance measures can be used to learn, improve and optimize fire department operations. Performance measures can also be used to establish benchmarks for a department’s performance, provide comparative metrics for other departments, and identify and promote best practices. Specifically, fire department performance should be measured according to indicators of quality and effectiveness that are established for the emergency response system. Measuring fire department performance using appropriate indicators is expected to 1. provide continuous measurement of quality in the system; 2. identify areas of excellence; 3. highlight sentinel events; 4. verify effectiveness of a corrective action; 5. allow comparison of the department to established operational standards; and 6. contribute to establishing new standards for performance.

Pulling it together

Risk assessment, planning, prevention, preparedness, along with response and on scene performance, are fire department functions that require continual attention. Understanding and procuring the data, and the data tools, necessary to evaluate these functions for reporting and for informed decision making must be considered by every fire chief.
In Part 2, we review six additional data sources necessary for system-level insights, fire department management, and decision-making. We’ll also consider the era of digitization and how fire departments can use data to position themselves for success.

[Complete the form on this page to download a PDF of 10 data points all chiefs should know]


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Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell is the U.S. fire administrator, appointed in 2021. She founded the International Public Safety Data Institute and was the recipient of the 2020 Mason Lankford Fire Service Leadership Award.