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...


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...


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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%?