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The life-saving role of statistics in the fire service

Data analysis pinpoints at-risk populations that can be targeted for CRR strategies – if your department has the bandwidth


For smaller departments, is there time for any data analysis beyond knowing which response areas may generate more fires or medical calls?

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Many large fire and EMS departments store and analyze statistical data, which can provide a detailed analysis of the types of responses their organization is called to assist. This information is critical to elevating the level of service provided by the fire department.

Two reports recently released by the NFPA illustrate how useful this type of analysis can be. One report compiles fire deaths by state and another lists home fire victims by age and gender – information that helps organizations better plan for different types of emergency calls.

For example, while kitchen fires are still the leading cause of residential fires, they are not the leading cause of fire deaths. Additionally, according to the NFPA reports, men have a higher chance of dying in a fire than women, as do the elderly, people who smoke, disabled individuals, those who live in rural areas and those whose income sits below the poverty level.

The data provided by the NFPA reports offers departments insight into call types, giving them a chance to make training or response adjustments based on the analysis of the information … but only if those departments have the bandwidth to analyze the data in the first place.

When data analysis is low on the priority list

While it’s easy for larger departments with bigger budgets and more hands to utilize data to elevate their community planning, I was struck thinking about how the smaller or volunteer fire department statistics that make up these general trends could be analyzed. Is there time for any analysis beyond knowing which response areas may generate more fires or medical calls?

We know there is a growing need to recruit and retain both volunteer and career firefighters. While trying to fill these vacancies, something must give way to the immediate staffing needs. I’m guessing there’s little time for the chief or another officer to analyze or discover any trends in their department’s response data, when their most critical needs include finding, training and keeping new personnel.

As community risk reduction (CRR) has become an integral and an expected role for the fire service, how can a smaller department keep pace with these trends and, for example, plan a targeted campaign, such as determining the need for and installation of smoke detectors for their most at-risk populations?

Beginning with the NFPA’s “Fire Deaths by State,” a department can quickly see their state’s statistics on the major risk factors, such as smokers, disabilities, rural areas, income and ethnicity. In looking at the overall trends from “Home Fire Victims by Age and Gender,” I suspect that where both reports begin to overlap may give smaller departments a good sense of where to focus their CRR program.

How to find and identify at-risk populations

Some of the individuals with the general fire death risk factors may be difficult to pinpoint. Taking a page from my department’s Residential COVID Vaccination program, I would first suggest contacting nearby churches, especially those in your response area, as churches usually know the special needs of their congregation. Other sources: your local senior and community centers, VA or local medical clinical, county health department, Habitat for Humanity and Meals on Wheels. All of these were groups that we also contacted during our Residential COVID Vaccination program.

During COVID, we were specifically looking for those who were infirmed, disabled, homebound or elderly. Leaders of various organizations assisted us in contacting those members in need so we could offer the resident a COVID vaccination in the comfort of their home. We then made an appointment to come to their residence at a convenient time to administer the vaccination; we also provided follow-up visits to administer the COVID booster vaccine. While there, we also checked the home for smoke detectors and made suggestions to help eliminate potential falls, another cause of serious injury in the home.

This strategy can be replicated with regards to those considered at risk for becoming a fire victim.

Carve out time for data analysis if possible

There will be some who believe that every department should already be analyzing their statistics. But I know from my time traveling Ohio as state fire marshal that most smaller departments had little time to complete such analyses. Their priorities were training and responding to their community’s emergencies.

Use these two NFPA reports as a guide to shed light on those most at risk in your community, as well as a basis for a possible CRR program that could also save multiple lives. You may never know a life was saved as a result of the program, but as firefighters, saving lives is the bottom line.

Stay safe.

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers – USA Branch. He has served as a subject-matter expert, program coordinator and evaluator, and representative working with national-level organizations, such as FEMA, the USFA and the National Fire Academy. Rielage served as a committee member for NFPA 1250 and NFPA 1201. In 2019, he received the Ohio Fire Service Distinguished Service Award. Rielage is currently working on two books – “On Fire Service Leadership” and “A Practical Guide for Families Dealing with a Fire or Police LODD.” Connect with Rielage via email.