How can data drive a fire department?

Properly allocating fire department resources means understanding the community's need, and that means understanding the data


Choices about how to deliver fire and other emergency services was once the domain of a chief's intuition and past practices. The financial and service demand pressures on fire departments now requires those decisions be data-driven.

That was the message offered by three fire chiefs at an International Association of Fire Chief's Fire-Rescue International seminar Wednesday. In short, providing the best service to the community means knowing what data to collect, making sense of that data and looking for creative ways to use that data in different service-delivery methods.

One mistake Stockton, Calif. was making was just counting the number of calls, says the city's recently retired fire chief Jeff Piechura. "We just counted; we didn't really drill," he said. 

Fire Chief Jeff Blake (Photo courtesy Rick Markley)
Fire Chief Jeff Blake (Photo courtesy Rick Markley)

When they did drill, one thing they found was that most of their fire fatalities occurred during normal working hours and to those who tended to be home alone at those times — children and the elderly. And many of those were cooking fires.

One of the big impacts to Stockton came from changing how it responded to EMS calls. The city had a private ambulance firm contracted to respond to all calls, yet they still dispatched a fire department rig.

What the data showed was that 25 percent of the time, the private ambulance company was calling off the fire department. By cutting out the lowest-priority calls from their response protocol, the city trimmed its number of calls by 5 percent.

In Bend, Ore., Chief Jeff Blake also had resource-availability problems, and consequently higher response times with EMS calls. They turned to quick-response vehicles to do fast assessments on patients and adjusted the responding units accordingly.

This was important partly because they were operating with a regional dispatch system that at times could be "wonky," Blake said.

The move meant more resources available to the tune of a 28 percent reduction in time out of resources. And, within the first three months of the program, they shaved 1 minute and 10 seconds off their average response time.

Littleton, Colo. Fire Chief Chris Armstrong also turned to quick-response vehicles during that department's peak call hours between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Littleton dispatches its quick-response vehicles to all fire alarms that come in from only one caller. Their data showed that actual fires generated several 911 calls where as false alarms were from a single call.

"We can't say that we're not coming to nonemergent calls," Armstrong said. "We can change how we respond. Are we providing the services we want to provide or the services the community demands?"

Littleton had to add its quick-response without adding personnel or vehicles. They did so by assigning some firefighters to 40-hour weeks and outfitting existing vehicles.

In the coming year, Littleton will roll the program back into its regular shifts by having its quick-response firefighters work 12 hours then jump to an engine or truck assignment for the remainder of the shift. And if there's anyone who's on overtime, that person will be sent home and replaced by the firefighters coming off the 12-hour quick-response shift.

Armstrong estimates that this move alone will reduce the department's overtime spending by 50 percent. And this comes with the backing of the union.  

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