Using Pre & Post-Event Data for Prepared Fire Response

Nicole Hayes

If you’ve ever heard the saying, “too much of a good thing,” you can probably understand the state of data in the world of firefighting. In fact, there is so much information available to today’s fire agencies that the phrase “Big Data” is often rightfully applied, especially when it comes to the technologies creating so-called Smart Firefighting.

From high-tech, lightweight fiber optic FR clothing that can read body temperatures and chemical exposure, to trucks that automatically monitor water pressure, available diesel, and battery levels, the innovations for today’s fire industry have the potential to save more lives and property. Add to that the countless incident reports coming in to your department every month, you undoubtedly have a wealth of data available at your fingertips.

But with the blessing of Big Data also comes the curse of Big Data. Data truly only becomes useful when it makes the transition to “information” – that is, being organized and presented in a way that facilitates decision-making. With seemingly unending sources of data, how can a fire agency harness what is actually helpful and filter out the noise of all the extra data?

Taming the Data Deluge

One of the most practical ways of getting a handle on the massive amount of data coming into your department is by utilizing a fire-specific record management system (RMS). These software tools offer functionality to track and analyze a wide range of metrics you might want to track and review.

While easily collecting and storing information on your daily incident reports, a fire RMS can also help you manage operations at your station, personnel data, compliance, and data on your community from inspections and permitting. One of the best things about an RMS is the ability for your team to access the digital data from almost anywhere at anytime, as well as key databases and fire codes.

Data Into Decisions

Once you have begun collecting key data on your department and your community, you can begin to use this information to improve operations, response plans, and community outreach plans. You can easily reviewed your stored data to learn more about your most common types of calls, the areas with the most incidents in your community, the number of completed ePCRs turned over at hospitals, and a wide range of metrics such as average arrival time, transport time, etc.

This available data makes it easier to not only meet reporting requirements from state and national organizations, but communicate to decision makers on budgetary needs, stay organized for billing, and ensure that you are fully staffed and in compliance on training. RMS tools can even help you improve the health of your team members by tracking exposure to hazardous chemicals or traumatic events, allowing for preventive care. Finally, having a good handle on your department’s metrics can help you compare with your peers across the nation (like in the 2020 Fire Index report) and submit stronger grant proposals with historic data.

Data for Better Response Plans

One of the key roles for fire departments today – especially in quickly growing communities – is property inspections. Whether new construction or regular inspections of existing properties, digital records that have been carefully recorded and completed can actually be a huge resource for a department during its future incident response. Add these to a careful review of incidents after an event, your team will arrive at its next call more prepared and better equipped for a successful outcome.

In its recent publication, Research Roadmap for Smart Fire Fighting, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) several ways fire agencies could leverage these sources pre- and post-event to improve their SOPs and future responses.

For example, when pre-inspecting your community, or conducting your post-event inspection, you could note data-driven information such as:

  • Property location: Is it urban or rural? This could dictate your fastest route in the future, and offer ideas for rerouting traffic as needed.
  • Property occupants: What are the average ages? Any special needs? This could dictate expertise and support systems needed for future responses.
  • Property size and specifics: How many floors? Construction materials? Surrounding flammable vegetation? Exposure to high winds or sun? This could dictate best suppression and control tactics as well as preferred equipment.
  • Local water supply: How far to water and what volume is available? This could improve your situational awareness and dictate your management methods.
  • Neighboring property: What is the condition of surrounding areas? Any nearby high-risk structures or areas that house large numbers of people? This could help you optimize and rebuild support infrastructure.
  • Cellular coverage: Are you able to access your Wi-Fi and internet-based information systems? Would you be able to share data and information with other team members on site? What about other organizations like police, the Red Cross, The Salvation Army, and other response agencies? This could dictate your response plan and the format for your situational awareness information, such as maps and weather conditions, and communication tools.

Tools to Make Data More Reliable

It’s important to remember that the accuracy of your information is dependent on the firefighter conducting the inspection, and this could range from a veteran to a newbie, each using different terminology to describe and record what they see. Today’s property and inspection software tools allow for customizable, progressive forms that alert the user to any mistakes or incomplete forms as they are working and also offer drop-down menus to help ensure more common terminology usage.

Additionally, the fact that these digital records are stored via SaaS and can be accessed from anywhere means that the data is more readily available when and where it’s needed. From the command post to a fire fighter’s handheld device on the way to an incident, property layout can be reviewed, including location of hazardous materials, number and location of residents, types of fire suppression systems, and more.

As Big Data in firefighting continues to grow, NITS and other agencies are encouraging fire departments to look for ways to increase communication and teamwork between all involved agencies, standardize on terminology and collection techniques, and support ongoing research to find best practices to support the utilization of available data. Once departments can truly harness the power of Big Data, they are tipping the odds more in their favor of better, more informed responses and a more situationally aware team.


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