The Proof Is in the Pudding

Picture the following scenario from "Anytown, U.S.A.": You wake up from a night's sleep and walk into the den, where the early-morning news is on TV. As your eyes focus, you notice that a reporter is interviewing a battalion chief about a house fire his department has just extinguished. "It started off as a 'room-and-contents,' as best we could determine when we arrived about 2 A.M., but it had already spread through the entire house, and, unfortunately, the children in the back bedroom were overcome with smoke. By the time we located them, it was too late to save them."

This scenario is played out across the United States every week. It is as common as watching the latest traffic report. What most people in our country don't understand is that this scenario is abnormal in much of the rest of the world. Our citizens are desensitized to the fire problem — and so is the fire service. One key reason is that we do not have a top-of-mind focus on collecting data. If we do not have access to quality data, how can we even begin to attack the problem? We cannot even discuss it. If we can't discuss it or present it in a way that makes sense to our citizens or our administrations, we will never be able to make our case for financial and resource support to make the fire problem diminish.

What the Numbers Tell Us

In December 2009, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA)/National Fire Data Center (NFDC) released the Fire in the United States, 2003–2007 report, dated October 2009 and covering the five-year period of 2003 through 2007. The good news is that the national fire-loss statistics continued on a downward trend. The report indicates that deaths from fire in the United States were estimated at 12,000 in 1974, the year in which the USFA was established, and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) estimated fire deaths in 2007 at 3,430. While this is indeed good news, we need to understand it in a much larger context. In that sense, the news is dismal. Despite all the improvements made during the past three decades, the report indicates that "the United States has a fire death rate two to 2½ times that of several European nations and at least 20% higher than many other nations. Of the 25 industrial nations examined by the World Fire Statistics Centre, the United States ranked as having the fifth-highest fire death rate. This general status has been unchanged for the past 27 years."

It is important for us to be aware of such global statistics and comparisons, since they help us better realize where we truly stand, recognize our shortcomings and point out areas that we need to focus on to do an even better job in the future. We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. What can we in the fire service do to provide a higher level of fire protection for our communities and better address the fire problem in our country?

The depth of our national fire problem is clearly depicted in the very first paragraph of the report's executive summary section, which states: "Fire departments in the United States responded to nearly 1.6 million fire calls in 2007. The United States fire problem, on a per capita basis, is one of the worst in the industrial world. Thousands of Americans die each year, tens of thousands of people are injured and property losses reach billions of dollars. There are huge indirect costs of fire as well — temporary lodging, lost business, medical expenses, psychological damage, and others. These indirect costs may be as much as eight to 10 times higher than the direct costs of fire. To put this in context, the annual losses from floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and other natural disasters combined in the United States average just a fraction of those from fires. The public, the media and local governments generally are unaware of the magnitude and seriousness of the fire problem to individuals and their families, to communities and to the nation."

Herein lies the problem. While it is true that the public, the media and local governments generally are unaware of the magnitude and seriousness of the fire problem to individuals and their families, to communities and to the nation, we sincerely believe that the same lack of awareness also exists among our peers in the fire service.

How can we knowledgeably protect our citizens when we don't even know the extent of the fire problem ourselves? Don't take our word for it; check it out for yourself. Never mind the rookie firefighters who haven't been around long enough to know, but ask any of the best-seasoned, most-senior chief officers in your department whether they are even aware that "the annual losses from floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and other natural disasters combined in the United States average just a fraction of those from fires." Forget about asking them about the annual fire-loss statistics across the country or even in your state; just ask them whether they know the annual fire loss statistics in your community. What did you find out?

The intent of those questions was not to put our chief officers on the spot, but to point out that our attention is focused on our day-to-day operations and that at best we may only have a general idea about our local fire-loss statistics.

No Data, No Dollars

If we don't know the true magnitude and seriousness of the national fire problem, how are we going to explain it to "the public, the media and local governments"? That is a significant obstacle that we must overcome. Let's put it this way: At a fire, if we haven't done a complete 360-degree size-up, we don't know the extent and magnitude of the problem. It is only when we have an accurate assessment of the immediate challenges that we can call for the adequate resources to address them, right? Quite similarly then, if our public and elected officials are truly unaware of the seriousness and the real magnitude of the fire problem, how do we expect them to provide us with the necessary resources to address it?

We need a comprehensive database now and that starts with each department. We believe that having a valid, detailed and accurate national database that can provide us with up-to-date local, state and national fire-loss statistics is of utmost importance to all of us in the fire service. That was the main reason that the USFA developed the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) in 1976. Version 5.0 of NFIRS was developed in 1999 and is currently in use. Major changes to NFIRS are in development, with a web-based input tool to be released this year and a new data warehouse with improved output report capabilities to be released early in 2011.

"Fire in the United States, 2003–2007" indicates that NFIRS was the primary source of data and accounted for 98% of the data reported. This document could, in a sense, be considered our latest report card. Analyzing some of its findings could be of value to us in the fire service by helping us identify our shortcomings and improve our performance.

The challenge lies at the local level. The document indicates that out of the estimated 33,784 fire departments in our country, only 20,022 (59%) reported to NFIRS in 2007. Why is it that some fire departments do not report to NFIRS? Because participation is voluntary, and the other 41% don't feel obligated to report to NFIRS. Even this low level of participation is the highest ever and has increased significantly, thanks to provisions of the Assistant to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program that require applicants to report to NFIRS.

Can you even imagine if only 59% of our counterparts in law enforcement reported local crime statistics to their national database and that the remaining 41% just didn't feel like filling out the reports or claimed that they didn't have the time and/or expertise to participate in the program? The police have abundant, up-to-date, detailed and complete national and local crime statistics. That helps them justify their needs assessments and obtain necessary resources during good economic times or bad, whether the crime is up or down. And the best that we can do is only 59%?

Here is the difference. Law enforcement rookies receive report-writing classes that enhance their ability to write detailed, well-documented and meticulous reports that could be presented in courts and withstand cross examinations and legal challenges. Arresting criminals is not the end of their job; it is only the beginning. It is the quality of their documents and reports that wins their cases and puts criminals behind bars. They recognize that it is their professional obligation to gather all of the available evidence and be meticulous in their documentation. Simply stated, they know that it is their job.

Many of the reports that police officers write document crimes that result in property damage, loss of life or injuries. Senior police officials and government officials would not tolerate incomplete or sloppy police reports. Yet, even though fires also result in property damage, loss of life or injuries, in comparison our documentation and reporting is sloppy. Many times, the NFIRS report does not tell the complete story of an incident. That is because, unfortunately, such deficiencies are tolerated by our leadership.

We are long overdue for a cultural shift if we are to evolve professionally. Yes, we signed up to be firefighters, not report writers, but firefighting is only one small aspect of the job.

Next: Recalibrating Where to Put Our Emphasis and Value

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.