The fire service future will be data-driven

Asking the right questions and applying those solutions will be critical in a rapidly changing world

I typically don't spend a lot of time thinking about data, big data in particular. Yet, it's come up so often recently that I find it impossible not to think about its fire service implications.

It came up three times in a draft document from Wingspread that I read over this past weekend. It came up in a new book I started, also this weekend. It came up again earlier this week when the editor of a sister publication shared a story she thought I'd find interesting.

In short, the Wingspread document calls for a more sophisticated use of data to prevent fires, protect firefighters and allocate resources. Thomas Friedman's latest book talks about how we've long had the ability to collect large amounts of data, but that we're just now at the point of being able to more easily process it and make sense of it.

And this Gov1 story shows how one city is doing both.

Louisville has been working to understand where its greatest fire threats are and what can be done to mitigate those threats. That's nothing new.

A few years back I interviewed Russ Sanders who spent nearly 28 years on the Louisville Metro Fire Department and retired as its fire chief. During that time, Sanders implemented wildly successful fire prevention programs — and this was in the 1990s.

For Sanders, the barriers to success were largely human in nature. He needed cultural buy in from firefighters so they would own the process. He needed buy in from elected and appointed officials so they would fund it. And he needed buy in from the general population so they would go along with the plans.

Today's fire problem facing Louisville Metro is largely one of technology. They turned to data analysis to pinpoint where and why their largest fires were occurring.

The data pointed to low-income areas and more specifically, vacant buildings. While that may elicit a chorus of "Hell, I could have told you that," it takes hard data to prove to those outside the fire service what all of us in it already know.  

That data was used to kick off a contest to find a solution to Louisville's vacant building fire problem. The winning solution is a solar-powered device placed in vacant buildings that can detect audible smoke alarms from any room and transmits an alarm notification to dispatch.

Of course, the best solution would be to eliminate abandon buildings and arsonists — I'll not be holding my breath waiting for those. In the interim, this bandage solution holds promise and could be replicated elsewhere.

In his book, Friedman argues that technology is advancing so fast that it is changing our society more quickly than what humans can adapt to. Early, constant and vigorous learning is the best strategy for narrowing the gap between where the world is and what we can cope with, he says.

For the fire service, keeping that gap narrow and fulfilling our duty to protect firefighters, civilians and property means attending to data. It means better understanding the existing data and seeking new data for current and anticipated threats. It will mean applying what the data teaches to tangible, actionable solutions.

Not thinking about how to use data to make the fire service more effective and viable is no longer an option. The world will pass us by and leave us playing catch up.

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