Updating NFIRS

Issue 7 and Volume 11.

Data collection and analysis for fire reporting in our nation is a huge problem. In the case of our national fire incident reporting system (NFIRS), I must admit to not having full knowledge in this area, but I do know a few things. NFIRS is widely viewed as needing improvement-perhaps most especially by the leadership of the United States Fire Administration, which faces some incredible bureaucratic challenges at getting anything done, let alone major projects that are related to data.

So it’s not about blame, but challenges in this arena are standing in the way of a significant need we face in managing fire service operations and planning integrated community risk reduction (CRR) programs. How do we really know what is going on unless we’re collecting, analyzing, and using accurate data to improve our performance; data that help us pinpoint fire problems so we can prevent them?

Where’s the Data?

The topic of getting accurate incident data, analyzing them, and putting them to use comes up repeatedly in the circles in which I travel. What, then, are some of the challenges we face in doing so?

Perhaps the first is that the data we collect now are not viewed as being highly accurate. Those who work at managing NFIRS reporting programs recognize that the quality of information uploaded for incident reports is very often either not done (the percentage of departments reporting) or is being done shoddily. That means “garbage in, garbage out,” as in someone has discovered if you enter in “undetermined” for fire cause you can save time filling out the report and go back to bed. It is more complicated than that, but I’m sure you get the picture.

Part of the reason this is true is because firefighters are often not shown the value of accurate data. Reporting is viewed as another meaningless bureaucratic activity that has little or no benefit to their operation. Some are making progress in this area, like the Kansas State Fire Marshal’s Office, which has provided training on the value of proper NFIRS reporting and seen percentages of reporting drastically increase along with indicators on the improvement of the quality of the data.

The National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM) recognized this problem and some years ago, with Assistance to Firefighter Grant funds, created a tool kit designed to educate firefighters about the value of accurate reporting. So there has been some effort to correct this problem, even though most would agree that more needs to be done. These tools are available at the Web site https://nasfm-training.org.

NFIRS and Smoke Alarms

Another challenge facing us is that NFIRS needs to be updated. I am hardly an expert, but I do know that some of the information we need for successful prevention planning is either not collected in NFIRS or is in nonmandatory fields that are nearly always overlooked. For example, there are fields for occupancy type but not one for rental property. That’s important when our efforts to improve smoke alarm performance in one- and two-family dwellings might differ significantly between owner-occupied or rental property.

We also cannot say much about what type of smoke alarms are failing. Why is that important? If two-thirds of people are dying in fires where smoke alarms are either not present or not operating (NFIRS data), then how do we know what type of alarm technology is contributing to that problem? There is some evidence that nuisance (unwanted) alarms are a significant factor in people disabling them. And some in the smoke-alarm industry and research circles will readily admit that photoelectric alarms have a tendency to “false” alert less frequently than ionization alarms because of activities like cooking. We have a field for whether or not the smoke alarm was working but not what type it is. How will we make informed decisions about smoke alarm type and placement without understanding more about their performance in the field?

So NFIRS itself needs some changes, but there are other challenges as well. Even when NFIRS is improved, we are far away from an ideal situation where the data we collect are actually useful in planning. Some departments do a really fine job of converting their NFIRS incident information into geographic information system (GIS) databases where maps can be created that provide visual geo-spatial references to the frequency and location of events-which can help us target our prevention efforts and more effectively deploy our resources.

A Step in the Right Direction

Making that easy to use requires a lot of time and expense. The American Red Cross has taken a step in this direction, which is free for any fire department to use by going to http://arc-nhq-gis.maps.arcgis.com/home/webmap/viewer.html?webmap=0e6044f83c5d4248bb020f364e8f8490. It is not fully developed, but it can be used for simple risk assessments. Here again, the people with expertise in this field tell me much more can and should be done, and it would be a wonderful addition to local planning if it were more robust and free, perhaps through a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) server since FEMA is one of the largest users of ArcGIS (a huge national geo-spatial database) in the nation.

And then there are some really superb aspects of ArcGIS we could use to refine our planning by finding out more about “who” is involved in incidents, not just demographics that tell us our high-risk audiences are typically poor, elderly, or of certain ethnic origins. We can actually find out their shopping habits and compare them in sophisticated ways to truly pinpoint where the next fire or other emergency event might occur.

My friend, Chief (Ret.) Charlie Hendry of Kent, United Kingdom, used this software to identify about 200 families in his jurisdiction (out of about five million) that were accounting for about 80 percent of the drain on all social services in Kent, including police, fire, medical, and other social services.

So where do we go from here? You can start locally by teaching your firefighters the value of property data entry and by making it valuable to them by reporting back to them what you have learned about their first-response area. They are not dumb; once they see problems, they will start to see solutions. Then watch out, because that is the essence of integrated CRR-getting firefighters and the fire service to think proactively.

But collectively, we as a nation must make it a priority to improve NFIRS, to make it more useful at the local level, and to take it all to the next level as they do in the United Kingdom to help us improve our planning efforts.