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 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?

There is absolutely no reason that we can't have all departments report to NFIRS. Lack of manpower and resources is just an excuse. For example, the volume of calls in small communities with volunteer departments is rather small and manageable. And it isn't that they are so busy running on calls that they don't have time to do a good job of reporting. It is just that they have not yet fully realized the benefits of NFIRS and so reporting to NFIRS is not at the top of their priorities list, especially since they are volunteers and have their own jobs to do.

But even for that, there is a simple solution. In an age when computers are available to almost everyone and even small villages in Third World countries have access to the Internet, it is inexcusable to claim that we don't have the expertise in our small-town volunteer fire departments to fill out NFIRS reports online.

A complete, detailed and accurate database like NFIRS would benefit us at the local level and help us better identify trends and solutions to address our national fire problem. Does anyone disagree? Then why not take the time to do it right? We must recognize that good documentation and reporting are important parts of our job that must be performed well. This is an essential cultural shift that the fire service needs to make.

Incentives to Participate

Here's an idea that can sweeten the deal for the local volunteer fire departments that embrace this cultural shift. What if the USFA could establish incentives through the Assistant to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program to provide small grants to volunteer departments that submit complete, valid and accurate NFIRS reports every year? The USFA could administer it directly or through the 50 state fire marshals' offices. How about that? It couldn't hurt, and could even make more than the bake sales, fireworks and all the other fundraising functions that small volunteer fire departments must do year after year to generate revenue for their operations.

That being said, there is no reason why any career fire department could not fully participate in NFIRS. There must be a quality-control mechanism in every career department, and their standard operating procedures (SOPs) must be specifically tailored to ensure that high-quality, consistent, complete, valid and accurate reports are submitted to NFIRS every year. Maybe an administrative chief officer could be assigned these responsibilities and make sure that all fields in the NFIRS forms are consistently, accurately and completely filled out and submitted.

There's More Work to Do

NFIRS is a great database and the USFA and National Fire Data Center (NFDC) should take pride in their work, but more work must be done to keep the statistics more up to date. "Fire in the United States, 2003–2007" says that "because of the time it takes for states to submit data to USFA from the thousands of fire departments that participate in NFIRS, then obtain corrections and edit the data, and analyze and display the results, the publication lags behind the date of data collection. Fortunately, the fire problem does not change very rapidly, so the data usually are quite representative of the situation in the year of publication as well." We agree, to a certain extent. Yes, the fire problem does not change rapidly and even this less-than-precise set of data is still relevant. But in this age of instant global communications, consider that our latest and greatest fire-loss document, released in December 2009, is reporting 2007 data.

Seriously, how accurate could our current fire problem information be when we are talking about statistics from three years ago; way before our latest economic depression showed its ugly head and crippled all of our communities across the land? How many of our fire departments have the same level of resources and staffing as they had three years ago? What about the adverse impact of all the brownouts, station closures and firefighter layoffs, all while foreclosed homes and shut-down businesses are set to burn? Are our fire-problem trends the same? For the most part, yes. But in this tough economic climate, in all our jurisdictions, we compete for scarce resources. To succeed, we need detailed, accurate and current statistics clearly depicting the magnitude of the fire problem and the required resources. Fires are just a small percentage — 6.1%, based on National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) statistics — of the incidents to which fire departments respond. We are all aware that most of our time is spent providing EMS to the public. Many fire departments also provide specialized services, including hazmat response, technical rescue and wildland firefighting. Some departments even provide other public services in their communities such as blood pressure screening, accident prevention, bicycle safety and fire safety education. Do we fully document these activities? Detailed documentation of all our services and meticulous reporting of all our daily activities is more essential than ever before.

The Technology Exists

The technology for compiling and reporting up-to-date data is available in the private sector. Insurance companies compile detailed statistics that they use for their own internal use, and they have simplified interactive forms available for their customers to use. For example, take a look at this link from the Allstate Insurance Co., titled "Common & Costly Claims," Enter a ZIP code and you will see a list of the five most common claims and the mostly costly claims for that area. This is just one example, but surely the technology is available to have similar detailed fire statistics available to us all in our own jurisdictions. Imagine how useful something like this could be to all of us during budget presentations.

The USFA report states that "with continued improvements to the NFIRS system, data collection will also continue to improve. If we better understand the relative importance of the factors that lessen the fire problem, resources can be better targeted to have the most impact."

That is absolutely right. Remember, the proof is in the pudding. NFIRS is the best tool available to us to clearly tell our story and help us with our efforts to address the fire problem in our country. It is up to us to enhance it, and make sure that it continues to be the most accurate and up-to-date fire database in the world.

AZARANG (OZZIE) MIRKHAH, PE, CBO, EFO, CFO, MIFireE, a contributing editor, is the fire protection engineer for the City of Las Vegas, NV, Department of Fire & Rescue. He served on the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 13 Technical Committee for Sprinkler System Discharge Design Criteria and is on the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Fire Life Safety Section board of directors. He was the first recipient of the IAFC's Excellence in Fire and Life Safety Award in 2007. He may be contacted at BEN MAY, a Firehouse® contributing editor, has been developing the discipline of fire and emergency services marketing management for more than 15 years. He has been a firefighter for Montgomery County, MD, Fire and Rescue and fire commissioner for the Woodinville, WA, Fire and Life Safety District. May holds a bachelor's degree in public affairs from the University of Oklahoma and a master's degree in international communication from the American University in Washington, DC. He has been a vice president of two international marketing firms over the last 25 years, and now is responsible for business development for Epcot at Walt Disney World Resort.