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.


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.