Fire Service Research: the Challenge Within

Robert Tutterow

This is the last of a series of columns on fire service research. These columns were inspired by the release of the Report of the 2nd National Fire Service Research Agenda Symposium conducted by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF). The Symposium was an extension of the 16 Life Safety Initiatives, specifically, Firefighter Life Safety Initiative #7, which states, “Create a national research agenda and data collection system that relates to the Initiatives.” The report can be found at: http://www.everyonegoeshome.com/symposium/report2.pdf.

One of the research focus areas that deserves special attention is data collection. There was a passionate plea from team facilitator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell to educate the fire service about the importance of data. From the report, “Quality data is needed to provide justification for and validation of decisions and expenditure at the local, state, and national levels; to inform fire service standard setting; to inform code development; and to quantify and qualify fire service issues including resource deployment, scene operations, and firefighter health and safety. In these difficult economic times, fire service leaders at all levels are under significant pressure to justify budgets and programs with empirical cost-benefit data. While there is currently significant anecdotal evidence available, it is our responsibility, as an industry, to make available empirical data based upon scientific research that will demonstrate the impact of all financial decisions, particularly those affecting firefighter safety.”

The “Data Collection” focus group identified three priority areas of research:

1. Identify the “cultural” barriers and work to remove them.

2. Describe the needs and develop standard definitions and provide a user-friendly method of data entry.

3. Create synergy among the existing databases and eliminate duplication of effort.

The fire service has found itself ill-prepared to defend the attacks on budgets because we lack the appropriate data to prove our points. It’s like the old saying-we’re taking a knife to a gunfight.

Technology Transfer

What is the challenge within? A shortcoming of research in the fire service is the transfer of the knowledge gained to actual field use. This shortcoming has been identified by at least two publications in the past year, including the Report of the 2nd National Fire Service Research Agenda Symposium. The Technology and Fire Service Science focus area, led by Dr. Gavin Horn and Daniel Madrzykowski, succinctly states: “… it is critical to ‘get the science to the streets.’ Thus far, there has been minimal research conducted to determine the best way to deliver science-based training and educational materials to the diverse fire service audiences throughout the country. An improved understanding of the science of firefighting, along with the development of modern technologies, which the fire service must both embrace and utilize in operations, is critical to reducing the risk of firefighter line-of-duty injuries and fatalities, as well as reducing the costs of fire in lives and property to the citizens of the United States.”

The second publication to identify this problem is Fire Dynamics, by assistant professors Greg Corbett and Jim Pharr from Eastern Kentucky University’s Fire and Safety Engineering Technology Program. From the preface, “One of the largest failures in the fire safety profession is technology transfer. Technology transfer is essentially the transferring of the knowledge held by few in our business and distributing it to many. Specifically, the knowledge is the experimentation and studies completed by those scientists who publish their findings in trade periodicals that typically do not appeal to the everyday fire safety professional.”

“The studies and quantitative research are often groundbreaking, yet this information is not being transferred to those who may need it most. Many of those scientific reports contain so much technical jargon and mathematical expressions that the important qualitative information is lost and not comprehensible to many. The problem of technology transfer is further exacerbated by the continued publishing of incorrect information in those trade journals that do influence fire safety professionals. This further propagates incorrect knowledge to another generation of firefighters and training officers. We believe that technology transfer must become a priority for all fire safety professions.” This is true not only of technology but of all fire service research.

An Elephant or Two in the Room

Collectively, the fire service can be justly accused of never letting the facts get in the way of a good argument. As we continue to be tradition-based, new (and even validated) research still tends to automatically deploy the “BS” antenna. I’ve talked to several people in the research field who perform fire service research with a sense of trepidation. They have learned that the fire service believes only what it wants to believe.

I vividly remember a committee assigned to research and make a recommendation for a fire product. The committee was focused on a design based more on tradition than performance. The issue was safety-related. A manufacturer’s representative told me if he could get the members to visit his factory’s research and testing laboratory, he could convince them of the better safety design. I told him it would be a waste of time because they would not change their minds regardless of the evidence he could provide. Nonetheless, he was able to get the committee to visit his facility and demonstrate the pros and cons of the two designs. And the outcome? It was a waste of time.

This story is yet another of many examples illustrating why the fire service group that developed the 16 Life Safety Initiatives all agreed on the one that had to be listed first, “Define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety; incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability, and personal responsibility.” Within this cultural quagmire lays the internal politics within individual fire departments. Perhaps this is the second elephant in the room. Is there a correlation between the fire service culture and the fact that many of today’s fire service leaders started their careers riding in a jumpseat-facing rearward?

I am confident that the fire service can rise to this challenge. We need to encourage each other to embrace the process and the results of research based on science. In a conversation with Casey Grant of the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) Fire Protection Research Foundation, he stated he thinks history will record that we are now in a golden era of fire service research. If you are a manufacturer or dealer with a desire to fund “quality, validated research”, I suggest you contact the NFPA’s Fire Protection Research Foundation at www.nfpa.org/foundation.

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 Equipment Research Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).

Is there a correlation between the fire service culture and the fact that many of today’s fire service leaders started their careers riding in a jumpseat-facing rearward?

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