All departments keep some type of data. The most commonly referred to data are the number of runs and response times. But there are a lot more data we should be capturing and sharing to help sell our communities on the need to be funded so we not only survive but thrive.
I recently had the privilege of attending a presentation titled “Counting Calls” by Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell, assistant to the president of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) in charge of data, research, and technical assistance. The presentation was about data and how we need to capture and use more data to show our value to the community. The topic might not seem as engaging as firefighting tactics or lights and sirens. But, acknowledging that documenting our activities is not how most of us prefer to spend our time, her presentation made data collection a most compelling task we must embrace.
The basic premise is that we need to show our total value in a quantitative manner. Quantitative data will almost always win out over subjective and emotional debates when it comes to justifying funding. This applies to funding for stations, apparatus, equipment, staffing (career and volunteer), and support (such as annual physicals) for fire department members. It has been said many times, true, that the side with the best data usually wins. A key point in Merrell’s presentation was that we must quantify other activities in addition to call response. In addition to number of calls, many departments also track dollars lost because of fire, dollars saved because of suppression, number of smoke detectors installed, and other “low-hanging-fruit” types of activities.
However, we must tell a more complete story of what we do and, maybe more importantly, what we can’t do—i.e., our limitations because of a lack of funding for our service needs. For example, a volunteer fire department needs quantifiable data on the amount of time it averages to assemble an effective firefighting force to suppress a fire—think two in, two out. The community needs to know if its department might not be able to safely implement an interior search and rescue for extended minutes because of a lack of staffing. Department leaders must be up front and say that they can only protect exposures and conduct defensive operations with limited staffing. For career departments, there must be clear and accurate data that show how many calls a company misses during a year because it is on other calls. This is referred to as “system capacity.” I retired from a department that, like many departments, can easily run out of resources during a thunderstorm. The community should also be reminded that response times apply to emergency medical service calls, especially CPR, as well as fire calls.
Data collection and reporting must be “true.” Unfortunately, there is inconsistency in reporting “true” response times. Some departments track response times as the time the apparatus leaves the station until it arrives on the scene. However, “true” response time is the time the call is received, not dispatched (as this ignores call processing time), until action is taken on the scene to mitigate the incident—water on the fire.
All volunteer departments need to collect data on every hour they are involved as an emergency response organization in the community. All career fire departments need to start capturing how they spend every hour on duty. Activities must include training, apparatus and equipment testing/maintenance, and all the components of community risk reduction.
Parallel to the data needs, an interesting article titled “Marketing Myopia,” by Ben May, was published in FireRescue. A couple of interesting quotes from that article underscore our perception by the public. He states that the U.S. fire service is “… in trouble, and it’s coming to your department. It’s coming to all departments unless we make a paradigm shift in the way we see ourselves and make some significant changes before the public takes a closer look. It’s called myopia: marketing myopia—in other words, ‘breathing in our own exhaust.’ ” Another statement in his article that might raise an eyebrow is the following: “There is no reason for crews to be sitting around the firehouse ever unless they are training, studying, or practicing community risk reduction (CRR) in the community.”
Apparatus and equipment manufacturers should consider helping fire departments develop tools to help them improve and see their value to the community. It is in their interest to do so.
The fire service does face a clear and present danger if it does not look inward and outward for ways to provide and show current and, especially, added value to the community. If we cannot show value, our funding will erode and, in some cases, disappear.
ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board. His 34-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active in the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Education Resource Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).