NFIRS 5.0 Updates on Some Persistent Problems

By Mary Jane Dittmar, Senior Associate Editor

National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) 5.0 has been plagued with problems from its inception. Representatives from various levels of government, fire service software vendors; and fire service organizations have been attempting to resolve these problems, most notably through the National Fire Information Council, Inc. (NFIC).

Following are some of the most commonly cited problems experienced by users of the NFIRS 5.0 system and the actions undertaken or proposed by the USFA/FEMA:

  • Multiple announced and unannounced design specification changes. It is anticipated that this situation will be improved as a result of a resolution adopted at the NFIC Annual Meeting. It stipulates that specification changes be released every year instead of every six months. The changes will be implemented on January 1 of each year; notification of the proposed changes will be released three months before that date.
    An example of the scope of the problem associated with this issue can be seen from the following. When the State of Massachusetts checked its validated data for the previous year through the revised specification rule changes imported in July 2002, relate Jennifer Mieth, fire data/public education manager for the State of Massachusetts, and Derryl Dion, research analyst and Massachusetts State Program Manager for NFIRS, 140 errors were found in the data covering only first two weeks in January. Under the previous specification rules, the data for the entire year had zero errors.
    Action: The USFA is changing the system to ensure that once an incident is marked as valid, it stays valid, reports Alexandra H. Furr, division director, National Fire Data Center, United States Fire Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency (USFA/FEMA).
  • Communications. Mieth and Dion note that there is no provision for sharing with the states any data related to conversion problems–or any other problems–identified by other states and reported to the USFA.
    Action: The NFIC is attempting to make such information available through its Web site and e-mail lists.
  • Lack of standards for analyzing NFIRS 5.0 data.
    Action: The USFA and NFIC are considering the development of a hierarchy protocol for determining causes of fires.
  • Analysis coding guidelines. Mieth cites the need for more assistance with data analysis (additional fields and codes, queries, connections between data, click-and-point options, shortcuts, for example) so that the individuals inputting data do not have to look up six-digit codes in a manual.
  • Reporting, Data Import, and Validation Tools. Various needs have been identified in these areas. Among them are tools with expanded capacity so that large data files can be exported without having to break the file down into smaller files, facilitation of the process by which states that store their own data can export to the federal database, and eliminating the invalidation of files that were valid under previous specification changes.
    Action: “Particular emphasis is on tools that are essential for effective operation and management of the system at the state level,” says Furr. She relates the following:
    The reporting portion of the current Data Entry Tool (DET) is being replaced with a Web browser-based reporting tool, which is being field-tested by some states. Before making the new tool available, “formatting problems, bugs, and inaccuracies in some of the reports filed by states” must be corrected.

    The Bulk Export Tool will employ an access permissions system that will secure confidentiality, security, and the like by restricting access to the full, detailed database while facilitating access to the summary reports in The Reporting Tool.

    New error-checking functionality will be added to the Bulk Import Tool before it is released to prevent the system from crashing if the tool tries to process a data file that is bad. (Five states are now using this tool.)

The USFA is investigating ways to enable vendors to use the USFA edit validation in their software so that data quality and processing concerns can be averted at the state level. One possibility may be to provide vendors with a Dynamically Linked Library (DLL) file.

Rob Farley, who has been an NFIRS user for many years and a state program manager for 13 years, and who recently assumed the position of NFIC president, points out that the changes USFA has made in the program were “driven by users of the system.” This version of NFIRS, he adds, “accurately reflects what the nation’s fire service is actually doing on the street.”

For the most part, Farley says, feedback from NFIC members at regular training sessions indicate that state program managers are satisfied with the system. But, he adds: “One message from our membership was universal; states could use more money to deal with the extra demands placed on them, including NFIRS reporting.”

The USFA, in 2001, sought the help of the Office of the Inspector General to find an objective third party to review NFIRS and make recommendations for future management. Shortly after the audit began, Furr explains, the NFIRS-specific review was temporarily set aside so that FEMA could meet its priority of reviewing all its systems in relation to planning and security. The FEMA-wide review has since been completed, and attention has returned to the NFIRS review.

The report, Furr notes, is expected to contain documentation pertaining to the above problems and recommended actions, some of which the USFA has already completed. It is expected to be available early in 2003 (after press time) and will be shared with the public after it has been reviewed.

The USFA and the National Fire Data Center are also addressing the issue of how to ensure that individual fire departments will continue to support the NFIRS reporting process.

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