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5 steps to buying fire department reporting software

As pressure to be more transparent and accountable mounts, fire departments will need reliable data-reporting software


The economic downturn that began in 2008 only exacerbated the disturbing trend of declining funding from state governments to local governments and forced fire departments to make difficult budget-cutting decisions. Even as the nation's economic outlook has begun to improve, fire departments are still seeing reduced funding.

If fire department leaders expect to reverse or significantly slow that trend, they must become more proficient in collecting, analyzing and using data for their decision-making. They must also become more skilled at using that same data to make their case to community leaders and the public at large.

Fire department leaders cannot continue to rely on emotional appeals to their stakeholders to justify their fiscal needs. The trend in local governments is for transparency and accountability to show taxpayers where and how their money is being spent.

The issue is just as pertinent for volunteer fire departments, particularly those that rely entirely on community donations. The competition for an ever-shrinking piece of the pie with other charitable and non-profit organizations is getting more intense every year. Individual contributions are down (people having less disposable income) and corporate donations have declined as well.

Data collection
The following graphic demonstrates a financial-management model for fire service organizations.

The data that fire departments must collect occurs during the service-delivery phase of the financial management for the fire service model as depicted above in the right-hand arrow of the graphic. Just a few of the many services that fire departments deliver include: fire and injury prevention education, EMS, fire suppression services and personnel training.

However, this data will provide only part of the total picture — efficiencies — because this data is about numbers: the number of classes delivered, fires suppressed, patients treated, and the like.

The other data collection piece involves outcomes. How effective were the delivered fire safety education programs? How effective were the fire suppression operations? How effective were the medical interventions provided to the sick and injured?

Software modules
Fire department leaders who can bring together both the efficiency and effectiveness data components will find that they have a more complete picture of the value that their organizations bring to their community.

There are a number of software vendors that provide data-collection and reporting software for use by fire and EMS departments. The data-collection capabilities for their software, for the most part, enable departments to collect data for compliance with the National Fire Incident Reporting System and with the National EMS Information System.

Other modules typically are available for collecting departmental data for daily activity logs, administrative tasks, delivered training for staff, delivered public education programs, equipment inventory management, apparatus maintenance and repairs, personnel work schedules and more.

Before you get started
Before purchasing any software vendor's product, it is useful to conduct a self-assessment for your department to answer some key questions.

  • Why do we need to collect and analyze data?
  • What data should, or must, be collected? 
  • Who will be responsible for entering the data? 
  • How will the responsible parties enter the data?

These are important internal assessment questions. Far too often software purchasing decisions are made by those in leadership or technology positions within a department without much thought about one of the most important components in any data collection system: the end user.

The vast majority of the data that most fire departments need to collect and analyze originates at the level in the organization where the services get delivered, such as by firefighters and officers, public educators, fire inspectors and apparatus maintenance personnel.

The earlier in the process that fire department leadership gains input from these stakeholders, the greater the chance that whatever reporting software is eventually chosen will be the right one.

Five steps

1. Consider available resources

What hardware requirements do you have? Do you want the system to operate on desktop computers, tablet computers, handheld devices or a combination of all three? 

Keep in mind those end-users who will be responsible for the majority of data entry. Buying a system that is solely PC-based for data entry is counter-intuitive if end-users would be more effective and efficient with their data entry if they could do so using a tablet or handheld device.

How much money is available for the software purchase and the on-going maintenance for both the hardware and the software? Do you have the staff required for the software implementation and for training your people in its use?

2. Develop a plan 

Assemble a cross-sectional team of stakeholders to develop the plan and see it through implementation. The plan should include a list of features that your department needs from a reporting systems and a timeline for the selection and implementation of the purchase.

3. Evaluate and try the available options 

Most of the reporting software vendors provide a 30-day free trial, so put enough time into your planning to take advantage of this opportunity.

Have each prospective vendor provide a full demonstration of their product and then give members of your planning team the opportunity to "play with it" to see how well it will meet your department's needs.

4. Start work on the technical details early

While your people are giving the various software packages a test drive, engage the vendors to gain technical information that will be pertinent to the ultimate purchasing decision. 

Can your existing records and data be imported into their software? How would this take place? Can the vendor demonstrate the process?

5. Start work on financing and contract options early

Ask the vendors to present their contract terms for your evaluation; ask if it's possible to get three options — good, better, best — and the associated costs for each option. 

Armed with that kind of information, a department's leaders can make the best buying decision with the money that's available.

Getting the right reporting software to get started on data collection for your department, or to improve upon your current system may seem like a daunting task, but it need not be. With the proper evaluation and planning your department should be able to find the vendor and software package that best meets your operational requirements and your budget.

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