Research in the Fire Service
I was absolutely amazed by the sheer volume of positive response to my last column. It seems that professionalism is something we all want to move towards, we just need the tools. We need tools to run our organization, set up training, apply for grants, and just about every area of running our organization. These tools are not axes and hoses, but methodologies and knowledge that are the keys to greatness. The first course I took on my path to a degree in Public Safety Administration through PSEI was Research Methodology in Public Safety. This tool gave me a framework on how to work through problems facing public safety and provided the formal research methodology required for a sizable application to the AFG Fire Safety & Protection Grant program.
All too often we do things not based upon sound reasoning or research, but solely based on the fact that 'its the way we do it' or 'we've always done it that way'. You've heard it all before. The old timers say that fire hasn't changed, the department hasn't changed, and isn't going to change. It doesn't matter that fire loads have increased exponentially or that the economy has changed or that the town you serve has changed, the department still is stuck in their tradition. A great example is to ask why your department paints their truck red, green, white, or whatever. Tradition is a great thing to hold onto, and with the color of the truck its fine, but when we're talking about life safety and running the department, its all about the facts.
The goal of the research class was to gain a better understanding of the formal research process and its impact on public safety. Research can not only help you apply for grants but also to prove to your 'critics' why a change is needed in your department. The flip side of research is understanding what is 'valid' research and what is not. This way when some member comes up to the Chief with the hottest thing in the industry rag it can be looked at objectively and evaluated by the facts and not just how cool it is.
So with that in mind, lets look at some basics about research. (If you are looking for a good text on research, see “How To Research” by Blaxter, 2001) While the text talks quite a bit about the entire research process and quantitative versus qualitative methods, the first step once you have a topic is your literature review. This is where you can build your knowledge on a topic before you even start your research, and may even be and end point in your department's research of a topic.
Blaxter's text talks quite a bit about how to find information about your topic, and the differences between information sources. At this point we are all used to Internet research, but we seem to forget that anyone can put up a website and start publishing information. The blog revolution has made this even worse, and the number of firefighting websites it through the roof! This may have increased the quantity of information available, but has actually decreased the quality of information freely available. The same goes for the industry 'rags'. Magazines are so common, I do not think there is another combination with fire in the title that is available.
So what type of materials should we be reading and referencing? Ideally all materials should be peer reviewed and referenced. This includes texts, websites and magazines. What about VolunteerFD.org? VolunteerFD.org has always been based upon research done on its members and the best practices submitted to the website. To increase the validity of my columns, they will all now include a references section at the end with texts, websites, and sources of all the information provided. I am also hoping to set up a peer review panel in the near future, but for now I have an informal team that gives me feedback just about every week. (There were over 100 responses to last week's column alone.)
The key is to evaluate not only the what the author has to say, but why and how it is said. For example, if you are reading an article about the newest gizmo, but it is written by the manufacturer, there may be a bias implied or expressed in the article that must be considered. We have all been to seminars put on by manufacturers that were nothing more than a 2 hour ad for the product, and others that have been truly neutral. The current trend is to have authors and speakers list their conflicts of interest before presenting any data, and if they don't, you need to make sure you check their references and background if you are going to follow their advice.
I've spent so much time on literature reviews because this is the most common area where fire departments get their information. With the literature review completed, the next step would be to chose a research methodology and apply it to your project. I wish I had enough time to write about all of the methodologies, but that is what the text was written for. The basic option is whether the research is qualitative, based upon concepts, or quantitative, based upon numbers or hard data. Fortunately, if your department has met its NFIRS reporting requirements, your may already have the data needed for a quantitative research project. This information is key for getting grant money and proving to the area you serve that their money is spent wisely.
The best example of this, and the largest amount of available funds, is the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program. Anyone who applied for the fire prevention and safety area had the requirement that they must prove by either a formal or informal research method that there was a need for burn prevention and what performance measurements will be used. Without research, the application was summarily dismissed. The number one reason why people do not get grant money is because they did not follow the directions, and this is a great example. If you are interested in viewing an example of research for this grant, look in the references section for my research on elderly burns in the State of Connecticut.
The bottom line is that if we are going to take the steps to become professionals, we need to think about why we are making changes. All changes should be based upon sound research and not just because it is the new, cool thing. While the exact methodology does not matter, it is the research efforts that matter. We may not be able to stop and do research at a fire scene, but doing our research before hand can not only make us professionals but save lives.
AFG Fire Safety & Protection Grant Program ( http://www.firegrantsupport.com )
Blaxter, L., Hughes, C., & Tight, M. (2001). How to research (2nd ed.). Philadelphia: Open University Press. (Available at: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0335209033/volunteerfdor-20 )
Public Safety Education Institute ( http://www.publicsafetyeducation.com/ )
Zigmont, J. J., Fidler, P., & Dalton, S. (2005, October 4). A Burn Safety Program for the Elderly Population of Connecticut. Retrieved from http://www.volunteerfd.org/elderly.pdf