The Proof is in the Pudding

Just about a month ago in December, the USFA National Fire Data Center NFDC released "Fire in the United States, 2003-2007" report. This document is the 15th major edition of "Fire in The United States" published by the USFA and covers the five year...

On a fraction of the incident reports or casualty reports sent to NFIRS, the desired information for many data items either is not reported or is reported as "unknown." The total number of blank or unknown entries is often larger than some of the important subcategories. For example, 43 percent of fatal structure fires reported in 2007 do not have sufficient data recorded in NFIRS to determine fire cause. The lack of data, especially for these fatal fires, masks the true picture of the fire problem. Many prevention and public education programs use NFIRS data to target at-risk groups or to 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. In some cases, even after the best attempts by fire investigators, the information is truly unknown. In other cases, the information reported as unknown in the initial NFIRS report is not updated after the fire investigation is completed. Fire departments need to be more aware of the effect of incomplete data reporting and need to update the initial NFIRS report if additional information is available after investigation.

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 degree to which there is incomplete reporting of civilian fire deaths is more difficult to identify, as the numbers of deaths are relatively small. Incomplete reporting of civilian injuries also is difficult to ascertain, but the injury-per-fire profiles for most departments are within reason."

Let's face it, the fault rests with us, and not the 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 both at the local and at the national levels to assist us with obtaining the desperately needed resources, and yet we don't utilize it the best that we should. My friends, we are just shortchanging ourselves.

All those "undetermined" causes that are marked on the Fire Module (NFIRS-2), just to get it done, don't help us at all to address the fire problem. When we "wing it" and merely "guesstimate" the dollar losses and values on the Basic Module (NFIRS-1), we are only skewing the data.

We need accurate information in the code development arenas to make sure that the buildings constructed have fire and life safety provisions that can protect our citizens and our firefighters. Why is that important? Because the USFA report clearly points out that the 3 Es of fire prevention (engineering, education, and enforcement) played a key role in reducing our fire losses. Take a look, and you can see that, based on the report, five out of the six factors that directly contributed to these downward fire trends were directly related to fire prevention.

"This report shows that, overall, the fire problem in the United States continues to improve. Five-year fire loss rates are down. It is likely that several factors continue to contribute to these trends:

  • Smoke alarms, whose usage has become nearly universal;
  • Sprinklers, which quickly combat incipient fires, especially in nonresidential and multifamily buildings;
  • Fire codes, which have been strengthened;
  • Construction techniques and materials, which have been targeted specifically to fire prevention;
  • Public education at the community, county, State, and Federal levels; and
  • Improved firefighter equipment and training."

To continue this positive trend and to be able to further reduce our national fire loss statistics through our fire prevention efforts, we need detailed statistics. But then, how can we enhance the codes and improve our performance without detail statistics pointing to the roots of the fires. Do you know how many times we were defeated in the code development arenas because we didn't have adequate data and statistics to prove our case? It took us a couple of decades to finally get residential fire sprinklers in the codes.

Under the current circumstances and with their limited resources, the USFA and the NFDC are doing the best that they can to help us depict the local and the national fire problem for our public. Sure, they might be able to further tweak and improve the NFIRS. But, it is entirely up to us at the local levels to recognize the true value of NFIRS as a great tool to clearly tell our story and explain our needs assessments to our public.

The problem is not as much with the system as with our very own traditional and cultural stance and philosophy toward report writing, especially when it comes to sending complete, valid, and accurate reports to the 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.