The Importance of Data to the Fire Service

May 17, 2021
Lori Moore-Merrell lays out clearly why the generation and collection of data must be at the forefront for every member of a fire department.

In 2006, Clive Humby, who is a British mathematician, coined the phrase “Data is the new oil.” Later, George Firican wrote that “Both oil and data can be transformed into different products. From oil you can produce anything from gas and plastics to detergents, toiletries, dyes and movie film. Data can be converted into information that fuels human and AI [artificial intelligence] decision-making processes, which in turn enable self-driving cars, improve a company’s efficiencies, develop speech-recognition software, find cures to diseases and much more.” These two statements only begin to describe the importance and the power that data can mean to the fire service. Data—and the knowledge that it imparts—is, in fact, the life blood of the fire service for the future.

The ability for fire service leaders to explain their department’s value is essential to protecting or enhancing resources for emergency response, training and prevention. Fire/emergency services leaders have access to massive amounts of data.

Structured data typically are well organized and easily formatted in searchable databases and include incident information, such as incident numbers and response times. Unstructured data have no predefined format—thus, much more difficult to analyze—and include social media, dispatch radio recordings and traffic cameras. Data capture, procurement and preparation of both types of data are fundamental to assuring sound analytics and data visualization.

As fire and emergency services departments become increasingly data-driven, ensuring access to internal and external analysts and data scientists is essential. As data sources become increasingly nontraditional, departments must access trained researchers and data scientists who can handle multiple datasets. Data scientists are trained to use technology as well as scientific methods, analytical models and detailed algorithms to mine intelligence and insights from structured and unstructured data.

Leveraging AI

AI is the sophisticated statistical analysis of massive amounts of data. Most AI today is known as narrow AI, which functions from engineered scripts to mine datasets and generate results. One type of narrow AI is machine learning (ML). ML has great promise for the fire service when given a consistent data feed. For example, quality incident data coupled with time of day, geolocation and community hazard/risk data can be used to “train” ML models. ML then can be asked to draw conclusions based on observed examples of tasks. For instance, apparatus move-ups often are necessary during busy times with heavy apparatus deployment. ML can assess data from various data feeds to determine where the remaining (unassigned) apparatus should be relocated.

ML involves searching data for trends, patterns and anomalies that might not be obvious to a human observer. In the case of an emergency response system, an ML algorithm would learn to send proactive alerts when apparatus deployment thresholds are exceeded.

It also is possible to train ML response models with unstructured data that tend to be qualitative in nature. Data types might include social media, radio communications and video from body cameras. With this information and structured data, machine-learning algorithms for response-force model classification can be created. Text-mining and natural language processing can be used to extract intelligence from radio communication, which would contribute to more accurate apparatus move-up models.

A data-driven future

Fire and emergency services departments should prepare for increasing data integration into everyday activities. Leaders must gain greater data acuity for responsible decision-making. Fire chiefs must ensure that they allocate financial resources for personnel and technological capability for data capture, management, protection, governance, analysis and intelligence translation. Firefighters must become increasingly data literate, to understand the value of accurate data entry and report writing.

Because the importance of using data no longer is a question, the major challenge that departments face is how to process more data faster—for preparedness, prevention, operational insights, and firefighter safety and well-being.

About the Author

Lori Moore-Merrell

Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell founded the International Public Safety Data Institute (IPSDI) in 2019 after serving 26 years as a senior executive in the IAFF who was responsible for frontline interaction with elected officers, executive board members, state, provincial and local chapter leaders and individual organization members. The mission of the IPSDI is to assure that every local public safety agency can show its response capability, reliability and operational performance using its own local data. Moore-Merrell is considered an expert in emergency response system evaluation, public safety resource deployment, community risk assessment, data science/analytics, strategic planning, and policy development and implementation. As a Doctor of Public Health and a data scientist, she served on the Biden-Harris transition team to conduct agency review for Department of Homeland Security/FEMA as part of the COVID-19 response planning and on the public safety committee of the transition teams for the mayor of New York City and the mayor of the District of Columbia. Moore-Merrell advises metropolitan fire chiefs in areas of her expertise while providing them with scientific data to make fact-based decisions. She was awarded honorary membership in the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association for her expertise in fire prevention, fire suppression and other related disciplines.

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