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4 ways to tap the potential of data and use it to improve community health and safety

Your agency’s data can help inform local decision-making, mitigate risk, improve firefighter safety and show the impact you are making

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Tracking data on incidents like kitchen fires can help establish priorities for community education.


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By Laura Neitzel, FireRescue1 BrandFocus Staff

Back when Bill Gardner joined the fire service in then-rural Texas, he came wanting to make a positive difference. Today, as a retired career fire chief, volunteer firefighter and senior director of fire products for ESO, he sees those aspirations in today’s up-and-coming generation, too. In addition to a call to serve, they bring a need to understand how their efforts impact their department’s mission and goals. They want to know the impact they’re making, not only through personal fulfillment and heroic stories, but with cold, hard data.

Many departments collect information about fire incidents and responses, firefighter and civilian casualties, and property losses to report to the National Fire Incident Reporting System. This information can help them track and manage apparatus, document the full range of department activity and justify budgets. But by collecting data beyond NFIRS standards, agencies can access a treasure trove of real-time insights to inform decision-making and help keep firefighters, residents and property safe.

According to a 2017 National Fire Data Survey, data “collection has grown far beyond incident data and a comprehensive approach to connect all fire activity data is needed to ensure that fire departments work with data that truly accounts for the full picture of their activities.”

Gardner believes that data collected by EMS and fire agencies has significant value that remains largely untapped.

“I think for years, we have had information and it was a perception of a necessary evil that somebody else wanted that information, or it was needed to make some type of justification of our existence,” he said. “But really, it’s needed to guide what we should be doing and directing where we should go in each individual agency.”

Here are four ways that fire and EMS agencies can put their data to use:

1. Mitigating risk

Risk is a big category, and to understand the true risk to the community, fire departments need to be collecting data that helps them answer questions like:

  • How many structures are there in an area or a community?
  • What is the building made of?
  • Who are the occupants?
  • What hazardous materials are stored there?
  • What is the water supply to that building?
  • What is the response time?
  • When was it last inspected and are the violations corrected?
  • How old are those structures?
  • How many have fire suppression systems installed?

Having this type of data helps departments evaluate what risks exist where so they can allocate resources accordingly and prioritize mitigation strategies, including community education.

For instance, data might show that out of 100 structural fire reports in a year, 20 of them are working fires – and of that 20, 12 are in-home fires. Of the in-home fires, eight start in the kitchen. Having this granular data helps departments zero in on preventing kitchen fires, which likely account for the majority of fire losses in the community.

This would help justify an expenditure for a fire extinguisher simulator to be used for community education and, more importantly, the community education would significantly reduce the risk of kitchen fires.

“If you teach the community how and when to use a fire extinguisher,” said Gardner, “it will, in turn, absolutely change all of the risk and associated cost in your community.”

2. Improving firefighter safety

Collecting building data about structure fires not only helps with firefighter safety by letting crews know if there are hazardous materials stored on site, it can also help firefighters understand their exposure to carcinogens.

“Every day, firefighters respond to fires that are giving off substances that we know are carcinogenic. We also know that firefighters have a higher percentage in certain cancer types than the general population,” said Gardner. “Data helped us correlate increased cancer rates with exposure to these products.”

Collecting that data for every firefighter is important to make sure that firefighters have the tools they need to reduce exposure and decontaminate safely, as well as to address any future healthcare needs associated with that exposure.

3. Meeting the needs of their constituents

Diabetic emergencies are a common reason for EMS calls. For agencies with a community paramedicine program, a visit with a diabetic patient can deliver benefits that extend beyond solving the immediate diabetic crisis. Making sure the patient has food or is connected to resources like Meals on Wheels – and that they have their medications and know how to use them – is time and money well spent.

Helping a patient manage their diabetes can also avoid multiple trips to the emergency room and help the patient avoid the need for dialysis and the costs and lifestyle impacts associated with it.

“We document that we spent a couple of thousand dollars in a community health paramedic program and saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in healthcare treatment,” said Gardner. “But more importantly, we can show we made an impact on someone’s life and their family’s life. It’s important to show that we make a difference.”

4. Telling your agency’s story

Collecting and analyzing EMS and fire agency data allows you to more easily report to NFIRS, justify expenditures or allocate resources, and it is also critical for telling an agency’s story. Demonstrating an agency’s impact on the community, both for external purposes like grant funding and budget allocations, and internally showing firefighters that they are making a difference in the community is what will drive agencies to the next level.

“We need to be able to take that incident data and say here’s how many calls we get, but more importantly, here’s the number of people from those incidents that we helped,” said Gardner. “Here’s the number of people in our community that, at their most vulnerable time, we were there to make a difference for them, and we were able to keep them in the community.”

As data collection tools evolve in both ease of use and sophistication and a new generation enters the fire service already understanding easy access to data, fire departments that leverage the power of their own data will have both the insights they need to make better decisions and the satisfaction of knowing the impact they’ve made.

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Laura Neitzel is Director of Branded Content for Lexipol, where she oversees the production of written and multimedia branded content of relevance to a public safety audience, including law enforcement, fire, EMS and corrections.