Today’s young firefighters will no doubt laugh, as what I’m describing dates me and the tactics I learned long ago. But something hasn’t changed. These same young firefighters very often will not see the value of fire incident reporting.
Frankly, it won’t mean as much to them in their daily job - unless they are involved in preventing the incidents that cause so much damage and still kill more people each year (per capita) than most of our industrialized peers from around the world.
Those who must plan for operational needs like station location, staffing, and equipment needs want to know how many incidents are occurring, of what type, and where. Those responsible for prevention planning want to know that too, but they also want to know WHO was involved and more detail about what happened so that the right prevention strategies can be developed.
Information is important for firefighters, emergency medical technicians, paramedics, and administrators responsible for guiding future practices. Yet reporting - especially accurate reporting - still eludes many across the nation.
When I first heard from Rich Palmer that Ohio had a fire reporting rate that was near 100 percent, I was astounded. How could a state achieve that level of reporting? And what were they doing to ensure that the data was accurate?
There are 1,192 active fire departments in Ohio. One hundred percent of them reported some information in 2016, and only 24 agencies have a backlog of reporting greater than six months. How did they get there?
Well, it begins with a state law requiring local agencies to report to the state and to the state fire marshal through the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS). (To review Ohio’s language requiring fire departments to keep a record of fires occurring within their jurisdiction, check out this url: http://codes.ohigo.gov/oac/1301%3A7-7 is.) I was amazed to learn that this law has, in some form, been on the books in Ohio dating back to 1901 - and evolved over the years to what it is today. That predates the establishment of NFIRS by a long shot, so obviously Ohio felt it important to collect incident reports of its own volition.
Support and Training
I don’t know how many other states require reporting by law, but I think it must be a significant factor in local departments making it a priority. But Ohio doesn’t stop there. Larry L. Flowers, the current state fire marshal, leads the office that is responsible for educating the fire departments on the proper way to fill out the forms. Nine educators placed throughout the 88 counties in Ohio visit departments in person, make phone calls, and provide general help to local departments with reporting challenges.
They have developed a basic six-hour training course for those just learning how to properly fill out reports. They also have a two-hour refresher course for those wanting to improve their skills, focusing on the most common errors in reporting they see in the Ohio Fire Incident Reporting System.
Fire departments use an online system to upload their data directly to the state fire marshal, where it is compiled before being sent to the National Fire Data Center at the United States Fire Administration. There is a link to fire reporting tips at the portal they use to load their data, and staff answer questions daily to help local departments do their reporting.
Building a Foundation
Rich tells me there is a civil fine for not reporting, but it is rarely necessary to go down that road. They prefer incentives, like the 400 or more agency requests for grants from the Ohio Division of State Fire Marshal that require they must be 100 percent current on their reporting if they are to be eligible for grant funds to purchase equipment or provide training for their departments.
Perhaps others will be equally impressed with what Ohio is doing and as surprised as I was that a person can spend more than 40 years in the fire service and not know about Ohio’s system and how it might be replicated elsewhere. According to National Fire Protection Association data, fire deaths have been reduced nationwide from 7,395 in 1977 to 3,280 in 2015. That reduction is made possible with a foundation of information provided by local firefighters that is in turn analyzed and converted into prevention strategies that have proven to be effective.
Those who want to know more can reach out to the Ohio Fire Prevention Bureau at firstname.lastname@example.org.