Using and Improving Fire Data Discussed at NFIRS Conference
“Fighting fire with facts” was demonstrated at the 1981 conference of the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) held in Boston, April 27-30. With 9000 fire departments submitting fire information to the data center of the United States Fire Administration (USFA) in Washington, D.C., reliable national statistics are available for the first time to guide fire prevention efforts and other fire protection interests.
Before NFIRS began in 1976, no two states were collecting the same type of data, so there was no way to compare fire experiences or determine large trends. As a result, the nation’s arson problem, among others, was said to be virtually ignored until data was available to show the size of the problem. Now, however, the overall picture is coming into better focus.
“We can now prove to Congress,” said Joseph Moreland, acting USFA administrator, “that the fire problem, as it has been defined, is equal to or greater than any other social problem.” The price tag for fire in this country, according to Moreland is $21 billion.
Competing for funds
Moreland said NFIRS data is an important tool for overcoming public apathy about fire. “Leaders in the community,” he explained, “just haven’t known enough to give a damn.” With factual underpinning, Moreland hopes the fire service can better compete for funds in a business-like manner with cost-effective solutions.
A documented overview of the fire problem is just one use of fire data. It can also pinpoint hazards peculiar to certain regions or communities. Ed Seits, of the California Fire Marshal’s office, described how wood-burning stoves were found to be a major menace. Accumulated fire reports showed that the problem was not a stove’s construction so much as the people who use or install it improperly.
Individual communities usually don’t have enough fire experience to spot such a trend quickly, Seits said. He showed how all the reports add up on a state and federal level. Then the information and warning can be returned to all the communities, where an effective plan can be devised to reduce the problem.
“How many homes would have burned,” Seits asked of the wood stove hazard, “if that capability (to spot the trend) had not been present?”
Other trends spotted
Several similar examples where NFIRS data revealed trends were described during the conference. In one specialized community, fire prevention personnel, armed with timely data focusing on Vietnamese refugees, were able to explain and reduce the refugees’ high numbers of kitchen fires. An investigation showed that some refugees, through incorrect use of strange American technology, were cooking chickens directly on the heating elements of their new range tops. A Vietnamese-language campaign has reduced this problem, too.
Figures from another area participating in NFIRS also showed an unusual number of kitchen fires. Through computer analyses of the data, investigators uncovered what they felt was a defect in automatic electric coffee makers. They took their fire facts to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which subsequently required fuse overload protection for the devices.
That’s the whole point, said Tom Wright, director of the USFA Fire Data Systems Division. With so many departments reporting into NFIRS, Wright’s priority is shifting from increasing the number of participants to concentrating on expanding the use of the data in its various forms—and on improving the quality of the data.
In one of the conference workshops, Ted Delozier, an NFIRS project representative at USFA, emphasized quality controls: “If the data is poor in quality, incorrect decisions will be made and unsatisfactory plans will be formulated.
“The collection and processing of good quality data,” Delozier continued, “starts with the local fire department.” One of the common mistakes was said to be trying to do too much in the beginning. This only adds to the pressure and quality control is bound to suffer.
Ohio was described as a leader in the NFIRS movement, but Don Ryan, project director in Ohio, said they had problems with a 60-percent error rate in early batches of reports. Now the error rate has been reduced to only 2 percent. Ryan emphasized the need to educate the reporting fire officers, especially volunteers.
“It’s hard to get him to spend much time on the report,” Ryan said, “if he is not motivated and the forms are not easy to use.”
A new NFIRS guidebook is in the works to help understand the system better, according to NFIRS representative George Wetherington.
“What’s in it for the fire fighter? Captain George Oldroyd, training officer for the Fairfield, Conn., Fire Department, described how his local data (not all of it is NFIRS data) give the fire fighter more information about the benefits of SCBA. Other data on certain fires now show, he said, when not to attack aggressively, because fire fighter safety may be unreasonably risked. Other data may be used to justify equipment and manpower needs.
Fire scene data come from the local fire departments but they usually go for handling to data processing specialists outside the fire service. Ryan urged them to get more involved with the fire department, perhaps riding the apparatus to fires occasionally as a means of understanding and establishing rapport.
To get fire service personnel to spend more time studying and using information, it was suggested that data personnel not just send hard-to-read pages of computer printouts with rows of figures. Instead, incorporating data into bar or pie charts or other graphics which highlight key figures (perhaps with color emphasis) was a preferred way of holding attention.
The same idea on use of better graphics is also important when sharing fire facts with community leaders and politicians.
Priorities vs. gimmicks
While data can be compiled to show the occurrences of all kinds of fires, Philip Schaenman, USFA associate administrator, said a top-to-bottom ranking of problems is the most important task. “Hit the worst problem first,” he said. Schaenman cautioned against spending too much time in the early stages on what he called gimmicks.
Schaenman was concerned that too many fire reports list the cause as unknown. When a fire death occurred, almost a third of causes were unknown. Schaenman called the situation “intolerable.”
Schaenman predicted that fire departments would be reporting fire information with a hand-held computer linked to data storage by the end of the decade. As buttons record all the particulars of a fire, the data will be automatically processed—in seconds. Now keypunching each fire’s particular facts is time-consuming and costly.
Last year, participants asked the USFA about putting a minicomputer in each state tied in with the USFA computers. It was suggested that communication and assistance would be made easier by such a network. After detailed study, however, USFA decided not to proceed with the idea. Too expensive, said Tom Collins, director of the USFA computer operations division although he agreed that minicomputers operated directly by each state reporting unit would provide certain efficiencies and desirable controls.
Any system like NFIRS, designed to provide so much information, is bound to be complicated, especially to new participants. To help with the inevitable problems, a technical support service has been proposed. It will identify user organizations and individuals with expertise in all areas of the system. The new participant can call someone nearby in the directory, and grant funds will pay their expenses for a visit to the troubled site. The USFA is receiving grant applications now.
Another item suggested at last year’s conference, an information exchange newsletter, was funded. The first issue will be mailed soon, according to Nancy Boyea, the editor. She said it will contain useful tips from as many participating jurisdictions as possible. Anyone wanting to receive the newsletter or who has an item to share should contact their state fire marshal’s office—in NFIRS states—or the newsletter editor at 2000 Quarrier St., Charleston, W. Va. 25305.
In the final business meeting, the National Association of NFIRS States, created last year, changed its name to the National Fire Information Council (NFIC). Expressing a concern for a fire-safe environment, the NFIC board declared that future meeting sites must be fully sprinklered or not over two stories high. Next year’s meeting will be in Phoenix. Meanwhile, Wright said, a series of miniconferences will be held in each district to provide more assistance in project management and other topics.
Newly elected directors of NFIC are:
Region 1—Ben Roy, Delaware; Everett Ignagni, Rhode Island; Hugh Clarke, Washington, D.C.
Region 2—Nancy Stevens, West Virginia; Ray Crouch, Tennessee; E. W. Stewart, Florida.
Region 3—Myron Franks, Michigan; Ross Boelling, Kansas; Don Ryan, Ohio.
Region 4—Ed Seits, California; David Pingree, Utah; Gordon Brunton, Alaska.
Metro—Ron Derrak, San Diego, and Paula Mann, Phoenix.