The Proof Is in the Pudding

As we stated last month in the opening installment of this commentary, in addressing our nation's fire problem, we need a detailed and accurate national data base that can provide us with up-to-date local, state and national fire-loss statistics. That's...


As we stated last month in the opening installment of this commentary, in addressing our nation's fire problem, we need a detailed and accurate national data base that can provide us with up-to-date local, state and national fire-loss statistics. That's why the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA...


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As we stated last month in the opening installment of this commentary, in addressing our nation's fire problem, we need a detailed and accurate national data base that can provide us with up-to-date local, state and national fire-loss statistics. That's why the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) developed the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS). But the fire service doesn't value report writing much. We spend little or no time training on it. Many simply "wing it" when submitting NFIRS reports, just to get them done and out. After all, they don't see any direct positive value in reporting statistics to the feds, and if they don't see any substantial value for their efforts, even their submitted reports may be incomplete or even inaccurate. Yet, if they were to truly recognize the benefits and value of NFIRS to them and their local jurisdictions, the effort and time that goes into completing a valid and accurate report would certainly be worth it.

After all, there are only 11 modules in NFIRS 5.0, and besides the Basic Module (NFIRS-1) that must be filled for all incidents, only four modules (fire, structural fire, civilian fire casualties and fire service casualties) are required; the other six modules (EMS, hazardous materials, wildland fire, apparatus/resources, personnel and arson) are optional. How difficult could it be? Yet quality of NFIRS reports is of great concern to the USFA.

Data Challenges

Many records submitted to NFIRS by participating fire departments provide incomplete or no information in some fields. For example, 43% of fatal structure fires reported in 2007 do not have sufficient data recorded in NFIRS to determine fire cause. The lack of data masks the true picture of the fire problem. Many prevention and public education programs use NFIRS data to target at-risk groups or address critical problems, fire officials use the data in decision-making that affects the allocation of firefighting resources, and consumer groups and litigators use the data to assess product fire incidence. When the unknowns are large, the credibility of the data suffers.

As troublesome as insufficient data for the various NFIRS data items can be, equally challenging is the apparent non-reporting of injuries and property loss associated with many fire incidents. For example, there are many reported fires where the flame spread indicates damage, but property loss is not reported. It is notoriously difficult to estimate dollar loss, but an approximation is more useful than leaving the data item blank.

The Enemy Is Us

Let's face it, the fault rests with us, and not NFIRS or the USFA. We have a great tool available to us that can best describe our challenges and gallant efforts. It can clearly depict our needs at the local and national levels to help us obtain desperately needed resources, and yet we don't use it as well as we could. In reality, we are just shortchanging ourselves.

The problem is not as much with the system, but our very own traditional and cultural stance and philosophy toward report writing NFIRS. We need a cultural shift, one that reminds us once again that it is our job to be meticulously documenting and accurately reporting all of our incidents to NFIRS.

The saying "the job's not finished until the paperwork is done" is absolutely right. It is our job to keep good records. It is our job to report valid, detailed and accurate statistics. It is our job to make sure that not only the mandatory required fields on the NFIRS modules are filled completely and accurately, but that all of the other fields also are answered accurately. Would that be above and beyond what NFIRS currently requires? Certainly; but then who benefits from those detailed reports and statistics after all? We do. It gives us the clearest picture of the fire problem in our communities. It gives us the detailed statistics to justify the needs assessments and the budget requests to our decision-makers and politicians in our own jurisdiction. In this current economic recession, wouldn't detailed reports and statistics give us more ammunition and help us prove our case?

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