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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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.