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How to write a fire incident report: Common errors to avoid and tips for success

Avoid three common errors – miscoding; inaccurate or omitted time recording; and incomplete, brief or poor narratives

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Sure, running the calls are the fun parts of the job. But when it comes to incident reporting and documentation, the fun needle begins to point the other way. While this task may not feel highly motivating for the writer, it is a vital requirement for firefighters to complete with skill and attention to detail.

Here we’ll dive into some report writing considerations, noting three common errors that can compromise completion of a successful fire incident report.

Complete the form on this page to download a tip sheet for writing a fire incident report narrative.

Who reads the report?

I constantly hear people dismiss report-writing, bemoaning that the company or chief officer is the only one reading the report before it is filed away forever. Let me explain why this is incorrect.

Incident reports are often requested and read by lawyers, media members, insurance adjusters, law enforcement personnel, independent investigators, local and state representatives, and even members of the public. Think about it. If your house caught on fire, wouldn’t you want a copy of the incident report? I would! And just think of the list of other people who would read the same report about that same house fire in order to obtain information to complete their jobs.

Beyond the fact that there is a good chance that your report will be read by someone outside of your department, the information you enter in the report is used by your department to gain valuable information and statistics. The more informative and complete the incident report, the more it can assist and guide your organization into validating decisions.

For example, incident records are used to account for spending and formulating budget requests. Do you have certain types of calls in specific areas of the jurisdiction? Well, accurate reporting can lead to redistribution of resources or the development of varying response plans in order to effectively react to the need. It can also help direct your organization into looking into root causes and making analytical decisions for the future. And these run statistics provide the basic nuts and bolts for the organization, and are often shared to council, mayors, and other constituents in annual reports.

It important that we educate our members about the reach of our documentation and the need to complete a thorough review of our incidents.

Common errors in incident reporting

There are three common errors in report documentation: miscoding; inaccurate or omitted time recording; and incomplete, brief or poor narratives.

  1. Miscoding: Incident records, especially ones that are reported to the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS), are assigned a call type category in order to accurately document the response, for example, Structure Fire or EMS Call. It may sound simple and easy, but this is very important for data collecting at the local and national levels, and it is too often inaccurate. An incorrect incident code can cause many issues. For instance, there is a difference between a malfunctioning fire alarm, an unintentional smoke detector activation, and a malicious activation. Each specific type can result in a predetermined reaction to the incident type. One may receive a follow-up from a fire marshal to ensure that the alarm system is working properly, while another may receive support from police or code enforcement to ensure that the circumstances regarding malicious alarms are corrected. Therefore, it is important to use these pre-set categories accurately. It may be a good idea for organizations to create a flow sheet or database for common response types with definitions. Further, in-house classes or instruction on how to properly enter a report would be a good idea for target audiences like company or chief officers. There are also training resources available at the National Fire Academy for NFIRS management and reporting, if your organization reports to this database.
  2. Inaccurate or omitted time recording: Accurate time recordings are a must for incident reporting. This metric is commonly referenced by internal and external stakeholders in fire department reports. The response time and on-scene time are critical data points, but we must be just as precise in recording other important incident benchmarks. On a structure fire, these benchmarks include water on the fire, primary search concluded, and fire control times. In our organization we record the “at patient time” for every medical call. Why? This is needed to timestamp when our crews make it to the patient’s side and initiate care. This can be very important when the medial emergency takes place on the 21st floor of a high-rise hotel, and it takes the responding crews an additional 6-minutes from signaling “on scene” to make it to the patient. This information matters. We also use these times for data collection for significant trauma and STEMI measurables for our hospital systems. In short, the report-writer needs to ensure that all of the report times are not only included, but correct.
  3. Incomplete, brief or poor narratives: The narrative is the most important aspect of the incident report. It tells the story and creates the overall record of the emergency response. It’s the nitty-gritty of what you and your crews have done at the scene. The narrative needs to be detailed and factual. In many circumstances, we often take for granted incident reporting platforms, because they have so many data fields automatically captured by drop-down menus. However, we can never discount the incident narrative as the absolute catch-all and reference guide as how the events on the emergency scene unfolded. The incident report narrative is what is routinely referenced by the previously listed external groups. Additionally, your narrative may be all you have to effectively jog your memory or justify your on-scene actions in the event you are ever disposed by a lawyer or questioned by internal members of your department. Furthermore, the designated incident reporter bears the responsibility of accurately depicting the on-scene actions of every responding member on the incident scene. In other words, you are writing the report for everyone who was there. This becomes a big deal when another member of your company or department has to answer for events which have taken place that you have written about. Can you now realize why this is the most important part?

Tips for the narrative

As stated, the narrative should be factual and to the point with short sentences. Write the narrative in a sequential order, as this allows the reader to know how the incident unfolded, much like a story. Some key tips:

  • Start at the beginning. State who initially responded and the initial call for service. If additional units are added or the incident changed, describe what prompted the switch in the response.
  • If there is a location change or an updated address after arrival, make sure to include the initial reported location as well. This is especially important if this created a delay in arrival.
  • Make note of any strange or abnormal findings at the incident.
  • Describe what the conditions were upon arrival, or what the first arriving unit encountered on scene. The initial size-up or brief radio report transmitted is great thing to include in the narrative.
  • Identify the incident commander. If there was a transfer of command, included that as well.
  • List the initial actions or orders given to the responding companies. Write this in a sequence of events that accurately reflects how the incident scene played out.
  • Include the key benchmarks mentioned above, especially ones that your organization requires.
  • On larger incidents, have the group or division supervisors include a separate narrative that describes how events transpired in their respective areas. You can either attach these to the report, copy and paste them into your narrative, or write them in their unit narratives if your reporting system has that capability.
  • Document unusual circumstances or issues that your personnel experienced at the scene, especially those that may have impacted their ability to perform efficiently (e.g., excessive locks, obstacles, multiple rescues).
  • Document the actions of outside organizations as well as whether other authorities were contacted, including but not limited to:
    • Utility companies
    • Coroner
    • Red Cross
    • Police department
    • Public works
    • Alarm/sprinkler companies
    • Property management companies
  • Include the information of bystanders, owners, employees or management personnel who may have been contacted or consulted during the incident. They might be able to offer additional detail at a later time.
  • Detail extraordinary events. Don’t be vague, especially if you are documenting circumstances involving a firefighter or civilian injury. Simply writing “Truck 5 called a mayday” without additional information is not sufficient.

In sum

The three ways to significantly improve incident report writing is to ensure the correct classification or coding, insert accurate times, and include a good narrative that provides information to the reader. Understand that your report matters for any individual or organization who will require the information. Take the time, don’t rush, and be engaged while you document.

Fill out the form on this page to download a tips sheet for writing a fire incident report to keep at your desk or share with your colleagues.

This article, originally published December 8, 2021, has been updated.

Vince Bettinazzi joined the Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Fire Department in 2007. He currently holds the rank of battalion chief and is assigned as a shift commander on C-Shift. Bettinazzi is a member of the department’s Ocean Rescue Team as a certified USLA lifeguard. He completed the NFA’s Managing Officer Program in 2016, and recently obtained his Chief Fire Officer Designation from CPSE. Bettinazzi is a co-host on the “Beyond the Stretch” podcast.