Face it. Usually the only reason fire departments file reports with the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) is because they have to if they want federal grant money. It's that simple.
But, there are other, perhaps even more important reasons to file the reports, as Marion Long, a fire program specialist for the United States Fire Administration's National Fire Data Center, points out.
Long, who was a guest presenter at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Conference and Expo in Boston on Tuesday, said filing the reports makes him happy and not just because he's a "numbers guy."
"Nobody likes filing reports," he said. "I get it. But you need to know that important decisions are being made based on the information you provide through those reports."
Accurate data is important when policies are made and funding is allocated, Long said. It's vital that departments indicate what they do and get the information filed in a timely fashion.
"It's not that you do nothing, it’s that you do everything and people don't realize that if you don't tell them," Long said.
In his presentation, called "Fighting Fires with Facts: It's Time for the Fire and Emergency Services to Open Its Eyes -- Information Sharing via NFIRS," Long said there's lots of information departments can glean from the reports.
Response time, kinds of fires, days of weeks when responses occur most often and a myriad of other kinds of information are readily available, but only if it gets filed, he said.
"Close your eyes," Long instructed the classroom attendees. "Think about your department. Think about your responses. You know what your department did, but do you have any idea what the other departments represented around you did? No you don't and that's my point."
Through the national repository of fire service information, Long said it's possible to compare departments and provide accountability and measures of activities.
"NFIRS is not a federal program. It's YOUR program. It's the fire service program. It's a way to share information," he said.
Reporting becomes less onerous when departments recognize the value and understand they can actually use the information for their own purposes, Long said. Departments need to "get something out of it" as an incentive to do the work.
Long shared statistic about NFIRS, including the fact that an incident is recorded in the system once every 1.5 seconds with over 20 million filed annually. More than 23,000 fire departments nationwide provide information to NFIRS, most often through their state program directors.
When all of the reports are filed in a timely fashion, NFIRS becomes a data warehouse for all kinds of purposes, he said.
"The world has no clue what the fire service does," Long said. That's why the reporting system is important. It provides the vehicle by which the nation and its leaders understand the fire service's mission. "There's only a small percentage of population that knows what the fire service does,” he said. “You have to let people know what you do."
Long said the days are gone when fire departments could expect to receive funding just because of what they do and because of a sense of entitlement.
"You can't expect things to drop in your lap just because you are in the fire service," he said.
Limited funding and resources have forced leaders to make tough choices. "It's no longer choosing between the good and the bad ideas. It's a matter of choosing between the good and the good," Long said.
The way to distinguish one department from another is through the reporting which shows what departments do and how well they do it, he said.
"There is no doubt in the fire service that what you do is great," Long said. "It's just time to show everyone else how great you are."