IAFF Putting Big Data to Work for Us: New User-Friendly National Data Systems

When a group of IAFF affiliate leaders was given the opportunity to voice their views on the impact of big data on their work lives, they didn’t pull any punches.

“We get our asses kicked regularly with data,” one said.

“There’s reality and then there’s data,” said another, expressing a view shared by many. “Because of the complexity of what’s necessary to make [the National Fire Incident Reporting System] NFIRS work, it doesn’t get used in the way that it should.”

“[NFIRS] seems to be geared more towards what caused a fire and how to prevent it in the future,” another weighed in. “It’s not really about fire response.”

Another said flatly, “If you could make it simple, it would work.”

These views confirm the IAFF’s strong belief that instead of being victimized by data, we need to influence how it’s collected, analyzed and used.

“We know our members don’t like filling out those reports after a call,” says General President Harold Schaitberger. “So we’re working with our partners on a new system to fix that and to be able to put the data collected to use to defend fire department resources and save fire fighter lives with critical health and exposure tracking.”

To do that, a new data system needs to be simple, far less time consuming and easier to capture critical information — not just the easiest choices in endless drop down lists. And, it needs to be capable of data exchange with other systems.

That’s why the IAFF has continued a partnership with NIST, IAFC, CFAI and others to develop two new data systems. 


First, the National Fire Operations Reporting System, known as NFORS, is a new national data system that, when fully developed, will allow fire fighters to enter information easily on their mobile devices, tablets or station computers, creating not only operational data from a fire, but also includes a retrievable record of events in which they may have been exposed to cancer-causing toxic materials or other health and safety risks that makes it easier to build a health record throughout their careers.

The second data system is an easy-to-use GIS-based tool that offers a user-friendly system for assessing community risks and fire department performance, as well as evaluating how well fire department resources are deployed — all in an effort to track and minimize fire fighter and civilian injuries and death and limit property losses.

The Fire-Community Assessment Response Evaluation System, also known as FireCARES, will provide affiliates real-time access to invaluable information to show decision makers exactly what risks fire fighters and the public face, and what they need in their fire departments to do the job safely and effectively. 

It includes more than a decade of research on structure fires and related injuries and death, as well as building footprints, housing and mobile home units, public health and census data, as well as vulnerable populations.

A national fire station file is already pre-loaded in FireCARES. By selecting a station from their community data set, IAFF leaders will be able to see if it’s located properly, as well as add the response resources necessary for building a scientifically sound risk profile. FireCARES also offers the opportunity to add your department’s response data to the system.

A Community Risk Score that FireCARES makes possible will be based on the consequences of structure fires, including population demographics, building materials and occupancy type.

The profile that can be developed will include a Fire Department Performance Score and a Safe Grade in three comparison categories:

Possibility of civilian injury or death

Fire fighter injury or death

Property loss based on how well fire department resources are deployed to match the level of risk

When presenting data from FireCARES to a city council member, for example, it creates a reality-based comparison of your community to other communities and allows affiliate leaders to build the case for making informed decisions.


Testing in the Field


Early in December, fire service leaders from 10 of the nation’s larger metropolitan areas met at a two-day conference in Washington, DC, for intensive briefings and hands-on testing of both NFORS and FireCARES.


“I’ve been in the fire service for nearly 50 years and I’ve never seen anything as valuable,” says Russell Sanders, Executive Secretary of the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association. “It gives you the ability to staff smarter, locate your stations properly and staff the response adequately.”


Several fire service leaders at the 10-city conference expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of user friendliness in NFIRS. “The only reason we keep NFIRS is because of the grant money we can get,” said the chief of one major metropolitan department.


One key to the value of NFORS for fire fighters is the new software that enables it — an application that’s far more user friendly than anything else before it.


FireCARES, however, is a little different from NFORS. It’s a data analytical system that uses historical and real-time data to deliver invaluable information to fire service leaders.


According to Chicago Fire Chief Jose Santiago, it would cost his department almost $1 million to develop data sets that will be readily available in FireCARES at no cost to his department.


Over the coming months, fire service leaders from the 10 metropolitan areas who attended the conference are participating in a pilot initiative to help provide feedback on how to make the application even more dynamic, practical and user friendly. Both department chiefs and union leaders are actively engaged in the “test drive” of the new applications, which have been under development since 2012.

The goal is to have NFORS up and running in 100 smaller departments and 25 major metropolitan departments by the end of 2016. The ultimate goal is operational effectiveness, which will be achieved by continually working collaboratively with users to accommodate their needs and concerns about the application.

FireCARES is operational now for residential fire assessment. Through login, fire service leaders can view their Community Risk Scores, their Fire Department Scores and their Safe Grades. Going forward, the NFORS system will feed data into FireCARES so that all analysis is up to date and accurate for local departments. 

NFPA 1710 Chair William “Shorty” Bryson notes, “This is our opportunity to stand up and take the next big step in establishing an evaluation tool for showing what staffing is needed and how to improve performance. This will be the future.”

“The success of NFORS will be determined by the value fire fighters find in it,” says Greg Mears, MD, who led the team that developed the new NFORS application. “We have to make the application and the information that comes from it important to every member of the fire department.”

“These systems are simple and easy to use, and they provide information that will give us the leverage we need to keep our members safe from unwise cuts while tracking their health throughout a career, helping with workers’ compensation and presumptive issues,” says Schaitberger. “But these new data systems only work if our members do their part by providing the critical information that will help keep them safe and healthy and hold communities accountable.” 

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