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NFPA's Take: Firefighters as Incident Data Providers

NFIRS data is used at the state and national levels to identify fire causes, monitor trends, and to make policy decisions.

Do you complete an incident report after returning from a call? If so, you, like many firefighters around the country, are providing data to the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS). Local officials use their own NFIRS data to measure performance, justify budgets, and determine the need for additional resources and programs. Jurisdictions that have the same reporting practices can compare their statistics with like departments. NFIRS data is used at the state and national levels to identify fire causes, monitor trends, and to make policy decisions.

Who Runs the System?
The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) runs the system nationally. However, states administer their own programs and set their own reporting requirements. Some require local departments to report all incidents, others report all fires, some have a dollar loss threshold, and in some, incident reporting is voluntary. Many states and local departments collect additional data that are not part of the national system. Many departments use the bare bones software provided by the USFA. Others use vendor software with greater capabilities.

Calculating National Estimates
Because NFIRS is not a census or list of all reported fires, using NFIRS alone would result in underestimates. As a result, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and other organizations use the details from NFIRS with the results of NFPA's annual fire department survey to produce national estimates of specific fire problems. Percentages based on details in NFIRS are applied to the survey projections to develop estimates of how often a specific situation occurs.

A Little History on Data Collection
Many of today's firefighters were not even born in 1973 when the President's Commission on Fire Prevention and Control issued the report, "America Burning." The authors noted "an appalling gap in data and information" The commission's recommendations led to the development of NFIRS in the newly created National Fire Prevention and Control Administration later renamed the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA). It took several years, but by 1980, enough states were participating so that credible national estimates of various aspects of the fire problem could be developed.

New versions of NFIRS were released periodically and most changes were relatively minor. A separate casualty report for firefighters was added in Version 4.0. Version 5.0, first introduced in 1999, saw a dramatic overhaul. Electronic reporting was expected and NFIRS 5.0 is better able to document non-fire responses. New details were added about detection and automatic extinguishing systems and less information was required on certain minor fires. Definitions changed, new codes were added, and others were dropped.

Some bumps occurred along the way with NFIRS 5.0. The USFA was expected to keep Version 4.1 up and running while developing the new system, without an increase in resources. Originally, the USFA had hoped to develop the specifications and have local departments purchase software from private vendors. However, local and state fire officials made it clear that if the USFA wanted local data, the USFA needed to provide basic software.

Timeliness and Quality Control Issue
Everyone would like to have the most current information possible. A local fire department may be able to tell you exactly how many incidents they had so far this year. But states are often in the position of waiting for one or more of their larger fire departments, which may be having problems with their local system, to submit their data. If the data are released to USFA when first submitted, the databases would have serious biases. The database would keep changing as reports are added from more fire departments and reports are updated after investigations. Likewise, the USFA does not want to close its data file when a state has not yet submitted its data for a given year, but plans to do so.

Good quality data actually begins at the fire scene with careful attention to incident circumstances and the fire cause and origin. The incident report structure may actually help focus cause and origin activities. Poor cause and origin work will produce poor data that no edit checks can catch.

The most effective quality control is done locally when the incident is still fresh in people's minds. Quality data starts at the top with clear expectations for accurate incident reports. A system must be in place to review at least some, if not all, reports to ensure that the reports are done properly and completely.

Quality control efforts at the state and national level mostly check for valid values and data consistency. The USFA also follows up on unfamiliar incidents with unusually large losses or numbers of casualties.

Many are concerned about the large amount of data fields that are left blank or undetermined. Too often, incident reports are not revised after investigations are completed. Inter-agency policies may be needed to ensure that local departments get the final results when investigations are done by other agencies.

While we want data that is as complete as possible, an unknown response is far better than wrong information. Policies that are too restrictive may push individuals to "enter any value that will make the computer happy." Adding one sentence in the narrative field can indicate why the data is unknown.

Avenues Open for Improvement
No system is perfect. A tension always exists between the need for enough detailed information to make informed decisions and the ability and willingness to provide that data. Sometimes NFIRS itself cannot provide enough information, but it can indicate areas that need further study.

Making changes to a national system at the local level is a massive undertaking, involving federal, vendor and local software, training and communication. Experienced NFIRS users may never notice that changes have occurred.

The USFA created the NFIRS Support Center, that can be reached by phone at 1-888-382-3827 or online at http://www.usfa.dhs.gov/fireservice/nfirs/support/ to answer questions about NFIRS, including coding, USFA software questions, and NFIRS data requests. They also keep track of recommendations for changes. The USFA welcomes constructive, specific suggestions for improvement, although they often get contradictory advice. Limited resources require that proposed system improvements be prioritized.

It is easy to take NFIRS for granted, to complain about its shortcomings, and to forget how much we rely on it. NFIRS data played a critical role in supporting the "fire-safe" cigarette legislation in states around the country. It tells us that sprinklers dramatically reduce the rate of death and property damage, and that, in the rare occasions that they fail human error is usually to blame. It tells us that 58 percent of the fires in unsecured vacant buildings were intentional, compared to 31 percent in secured vacant buildings. We need this information. The policy makers need it too. NFPA makes most of its statistical reports available for free to the fire service. A list of reports can be found at www.nfpa.org. Contact osds@nfpa.org to order specific reports.

People don't become firefighters because they like paperwork. But firefighters do like saving lives and property and NFIRS helps further that mission.

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MARTY AHRENS is the Manager of Fire Analysis Services at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and author of numerous reports about different aspects of the fire problem. Prior to joining NFPA, she spent 11 years as the research analyst and coordinator of the Massachusetts Fire Incident Reporting System for the Massachusetts State Fire Marshal's Office.

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