Unfinished Business

There are credible ways to estimate the property value and lives saved from fires and other incidents. (Photo by Nyttend.)

There are credible ways to estimate the property value and lives saved from fires and other incidents. (Photo by Nyttend.)


As I near the end of my career, I thought it might be useful to note several pieces of unfinished business that would improve fire service management if they can be addressed. I have been an outsider looking at the fire service for 45 years. An engineer who started out working on manned spaceflight, my career morphed to evaluating Bell System services, and then city services, and then specifically the fire service. I was associate administrator of the United States Fire Administration in its first five years, heading the National Fire Data Center and Fire Technology programs. I then founded the TriData consulting firm, which has undertaken data-based studies for more than 250 fire departments, including 40 metro fire departments. We also did 50 after-action reports of major fires and other emergencies and many research reports on fire prevention and fire management issues. That experience is the basis for my comments.

Let’s start with the data and analysis issues that I know best and are most solvable and then work our way to some of the larger and more difficult issues facing the fire service. Many of these issues have been addressed here and there, but they are still major issues for most of the fire service.

Data Quality Control

Many in the fire service lament the adequacy of the data needed to analyze fire department effectiveness and to target community risk reduction. As the comic strip “Pogo” once said, “We have seen the enemy, and it is us.” The reason the fire service does not have better data is because it has not made sufficient effort to have better data.

Updated cause: Many incident reports of serious fires are not updated after fire investigators make a final determination as to cause. This muddies national statistics on the causes of fires with deaths, serious injuries, and large property loss. Initially, many such fires are recorded as “under investigation” and then left that way because the incident report is not updated when the investigation is complete. The result is that the cause of a large fraction of serious incidents are left as “unknown” in the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS). This problem is easy to solve: Make it department policy to update your incident reports once a final cause determination is made.

Officer review: Incident reports should be reviewed for accuracy and completeness before being finalized in your data system. The supervisors of the officers preparing the reports are good candidates to do the reviews. They are likely to know about the incidents or at least the plausibility of the data on cause, loss, equipment used, alarm systems, response time, etc. They also can check whether missing data are truly “unknown” or just an omission.

Computer logic review: Before or after supervisory review of a report, computer software should check its logic and completeness. My favorite example (not to pick on a great state) was fire incident data once submitted to NFIRS by California, which had numerous fires in single-family dwellings reported with height more than 200 feet. Some had mistaken height above sea level as the desired data element vs. height above ground (number of stories). A house on a cliff was reported as having a height of 200 feet. This type of error should be easy to catch by computers. So are other “impossible” combinations, like an arrival time before the dispatch time, or loss of $100 million in a single-family dwelling fire. The solution is to add more logic checks to the incident reporting software.

More Detailed Data

There needs to be a balance between the incident details desired by analysts and engineers and the practicality of a firefighter filling out a long form after attending a fire in the middle of the night. Most incident reports on computers today are simply copies of printed forms with a fixed set of data boxes to fill in. However, it is possible to change the data details requested based on the previous data input.

For example, if a smoke alarm was present and working, did it give first notice of the fire? If the equipment involved in ignition of a fire was a fireplace, was the fireplace screen left open or were accelerants used in the fireplace? Those details can determine what, if any, public education or equipment safety features are needed. You cannot afford the space on a printed form for all such follow-up questions, but you can on a computerized form.

Estimating Savings of Lives and Property

It is often said that the fire service saves “countless” lives and property value, but they need not remain countless. There are credible ways to estimate the property value and lives saved from fires and other incidents. Such estimates take little of the incident commander’s time but the methods are largely unfamiliar, not required, and not used. The key question to make such estimates, which most incident commanders can answer, is how much farther would the fire likely have spread if the fire service had not intervened when it did, considering avenues of spread, sprinklers, compartmentation, weather, construction, etc.? You can’t claim you saved the entire value of a structure for every small fire, but sometimes you can claim you saved an entire block. Fighter pilots distinguish between probable and certain kills. You can do the same for saves.

For example, if you arrive and find peas burning in a pot on the stove, you probably did not save much. If you found a flaming pan of oil with the cabinets igniting above it, you almost surely (90 percent) saved the kitchen and probably the whole house. If that house were 10 feet from the next house, and the wind was blowing in that direction, you possibly (25 percent) saved the exposure as well. I remember a fire in the high-rent district of Georgetown in Washington, DC. The news headline read something like “$300,000 store” lost in fire. It could have read “$20 million in property saved.” Recording the avenue of spread, and taking pictures of it, can back up the estimate. (Those interested can contact me for details on the methodology.)

Developing a strategic plan for community risk reduction requires making tradeoffs between prevention and operations within a given budget. You really need to know such things as how many lives are saved and how much property by having more firefighters in operations vs. more in prevention. (Photo above by U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Javier Alvarez; photo below by Pixabay.)

Developing a strategic plan for community risk reduction requires making tradeoffs between prevention and operations within a given budget. You really need to know such things as how many lives are saved and how much property by having more firefighters in operations vs. more in prevention. (Photo above by U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Javier Alvarez; photo below by Pixabay.)

Developing a strategic plan for community risk reduction requires making tradeoffs between prevention and operations within a given budget. You really need to know such things as how many lives are saved and how much property by having more firefighters in operations vs. more in prevention. (Photo above by U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Javier Alvarez; photo below by Pixabay.)

Effectiveness of Three- Vs. Four-Person Crews

We know that tests of four-person crews vs. three-person crews show that the larger crews perform multiple tasks faster. Five-person crews are even better, while two-person crews are worse. But what is the difference of higher or lower staffing in terms of lives and property value saved in the real world? How often do the extra crew members make a critical difference? Most fires are small and easily extinguished. Some fires are so far gone when units arrive that the size of the crew is virtually irrelevant. But there are some incidents I investigated where multifamily buildings and millions of dollars in property were saved by having a four-person crew on the first-arriving engine and exposures saved by having four on the second-arriving unit.

Lives also may be saved by having extra hands in the first units arriving. We made a strong case for five-person crews, not just four-person crews, in city areas with high-rise, low-income projects that require much manual labor to deal with frequent arson fires on top floors. And you need higher staffing when a company is remote from others and has to be able to operate on its own for several minutes. It is entirely possible to review actual incidents and make an evaluation of how often the extra hands actually made a difference or would have made a difference. This research has been virtually forbidden.

Effectiveness of Fewer Vs. More Paramedics

If an EMS system is rich in paramedics, such as when all firefighters are required to be paramedics, the individual paramedics may not get enough field experience to maintain advanced skills, and they are expensive. Could a system with fewer paramedics provide better medical care at a lower cost? Is a system with ambulances having two paramedics vs. one paramedic and an EMT likely to have better medical results? We need to know this, not just use professional judgment.

Evaluation of New Policies and Standards

A new standard or policy usually has experts advocating it. But sometimes the standards are created by a BOGSAT, which is a military acronym I love that stands for a “bunch of guys sitting around a table.” The effectiveness of all new standards should be evaluated. The standards should be on probation until that time. Standards usually add cost, and sometimes their cost-effectiveness is questionable.

A case in point: The fire-safe cigarette test standard developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and promoted by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has been shown to have little, if any, effectiveness, but no one wants to hear that, and neither organization has evaluated the results with a refereed paper. On the other hand, fire-safe mattress standards and child sleepwear flammability standards have been proven to work.

You must check, not just assume, that smart people in the establishment know what they are talking about. In the 1870s, when newly elected President Garfield was shot, the emergency medical protocol for treating a gunshot wound called for probing the wound for the bullet using an unwashed finger and no anesthetic. At the time, Dr. Joseph Lister was shunned by the United States medical establishment for insisting on a more antiseptic approach to President Garfield’s treatment. He was ridiculed because germs were invisible and thought to be imaginary. Garfield died from the ensuing infection caused by his doctor following protocols that had not been scientifically tested.

Frequency Of Code Inspections: What Is Enough?

We don’t know how often to inspect properties of various types. Except for the United States Navy’s Fire and Emergency Service, in my experience it is rare to find a fire department inspecting all structures as often as code requires. The Urban Institute did a study in Fairfax County, Virginia, in the 1970s to look at the probability of having a fire vs. the time since last inspection, but the data were too sparse to be definitive. A better study is needed not only of the likelihood of fire but the survivability of the occupants in inspected vs. uninspected occupancies. Anecdotes do not suffice.

Company Code Inspections

Are they good enough to be worth the effort? Sometimes just coming around regularly for inspections may keep small businesses and relatively benign properties on their safety toes, but it would be nice to know if they really help in the large. (My guess is yes, they do.)

Barriers To Home Fire Safety Visits

A key part of current thinking on community risk reduction is that home safety visits made by line firefighters to check on smoke alarms can make a huge difference in fire death rates—50 to 60 percent reductions—if most homes in the community are visited over five years. So why are they not more widely used? Home safety visits also are a boon to public relations for the fire service. Most firefighters who do them love the feedback they receive from the citizens. In a survey conducted by Vision 20/20, the majority of firefighter respondents said they were willing to participate in home visits. So why are we not doing them on a much larger scale in the United States, similar to the scale in some provinces in Canada and fire brigades in the United Kingdom? What barriers are stopping us from obtaining the likely huge reduction in fire deaths?

Applied Robotics for the Fire Service

We are not talking about R2-D2-type robots joining the International Association of Fire Fighters; we are talking of adaption of military robotics to civilian firefighting, under control of humans. For example, there are rodent-size robotic scouts that could be sent into a building by the first-arriving firefighters when there is a lot of smoke to find the fire and look for victims. Also feasible is automated extraction of victims from hazardous environments (like an unconscious person near a toxic spill) or a robotic “mule” to carry hundreds of pounds of hoselines and nozzles up five floors of a tenement. In May 2011, Fire Engineering ran an article on the potential, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency repeatedly turned down grant requests to pursue this topic, in part for the unwarranted political fear of losing firefighter jobs to robots, which is not going to happen.

Locating Missing Or Disoriented Firefighters In A Structure

Academic labs (e.g., Worcester Polytechnic Institute) and commercial companies (e.g., Motorola, Harris, Grumman) have worked intensely on technology to track firefighters inside a building with little success. Research was stimulated by the loss of six firefighters in a Worcester, Massachusetts, fire in a vacant building, because the first pair did not know where they were in the building, and teams sent to find them got lost themselves.

The location problem is much more difficult in a structure than outside; global positioning systems do not work accurately inside structures, and a radio beam sent from a device on a firefighter would have multiple wave paths bouncing around in the structure. The problem can be solved by brute force, with the path of firefighters marked by “electronic breadcrumbs,” like in Hansel and Gretel, but a more practical approach is needed. Every fire department in the nation would purchase a reasonably priced system that could be attached to breathing apparatus for the safety of its firefighters, but no one has solved the problem, at least not at a reasonable cost. This research area needs more funding. It will help track firefighters and save their lives. The data on firefighter locations during an incident will be of interest for accurate after action reports.

Use of Best Ideas Internationally

The American fire service tends to be very provincial. Even if a new idea is proven successful abroad, there is great resistance to try it here, and it is often dubbed silly or dangerous. For example, some Scandinavian engines carry a quickly inflatable bag to save people jumping out of low-story windows before ladders can be raised. (It is good up to four stories.) Another Scandinavian idea is to plug electric stoves into timers so the stove shuts off after a set amount of time, say 10 minutes, if you forget about your cooking. A new standard for stovetops is going to solve this problem in the future, but millions of stovetops exist that can be made safer by simply plugging the power cord into a timer. We should monitor best practices everywhere and consider how they can be adapted here.

More Collaboration Across Safety Agencies

Law enforcement, fire, health, home nursing, building safety, emergency management, Meals on Wheels, and other services enter many homes and businesses for a variety of reasons. To get more outreach and bang for the buck, these services can coordinate inspections and other activities and can cross-train employees to look for major dangers. The fire service in Strathclyde, Scotland, is required by law to meet with its sister agencies at least quarterly for this purpose. Nurses in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, worked with the Cleveland Fire Department to coordinate what to look for on home visits to new mothers.

Besides the everyday risk reduction that can be achieved, better coordination across agencies is also critical for dealing with terrorism. The Arlington County (VA) Fire Department did a fantastic incident command job on 9/11, in part because its leadership was on a first-name basis with the FBI and other agencies involved. Likewise, the Boston police, EMS, transportation, FBI, National Guard, and 20 other agencies coordinated extraordinarily well at the Boston Marathon bombing. On the other hand, poor coordination between police and fire at the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater mass shooting hampered patient transport, though all were saved who could have been saved. [Those lessons learned were cited by the Clark County (NV) Fire Department as having proved critical in the fire and police response to the October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas.] All emergency agencies need to train together and get to know each other. While this is done today much better than 20 years ago, the trend needs to continue even more so now that fire departments are a key line of defense in national security.

Tradeoffs Between Prevention and Operations Staffing

Developing a strategic plan for community risk reduction requires making tradeoffs between prevention and operations within a given budget. Often, today this tradeoff is based on gut judgment, political pressure, past practices, and inertia. You can’t make the tradeoff optimally by these factors alone. You really need to know such things as how many lives and how much property are saved by having four more firefighters in operations vs. four more in prevention. Not only do we not know that, but raising the very question is heresy. I was literally forbidden to fund a study of this tradeoff when I headed the United States Fire Administration National Fire Data Center—because of political pressure.

The Future Form Of The Fire Service

Might as well stick the biggie in here, too. Given that 70 to 80 percent of 911 calls are for EMS; about two percent are for fires; and very small numbers of calls are for very critical hazmat incidents, MCIs, and other high-risk events, what should the fire service look like going into the future? There is too little attention being paid to discussing this at fire world meetings and classes. How do fire departments become more adaptable and remain affordable? Should they be like the Marine Corps. (fast and mobile) vs. the Army (large forces great for fighting big battles)? That is probably unfair to the Army, which has devoted lots of brainpower and money to consider its posture in a changing world. This issue has been discussed in the fire service but more backstage than front and center. We can do what we usually do, which is to slowly evolve over time, but that did not save the dinosaurs when there was a catastrophic event. The more agile and adaptable small mammals survived.

Some of the above issues have been unresolved for the past 40 years that I have been working with the fire service. I hope by laying them out on the table, some people might be brave enough to tackle them sooner rather than later. The answers will provide a more quantitative basis for the fire service to make sound decisions for community risk reduction, argue better for budgets, and be safer itself.

Philip Schaenman has advanced degrees in electrical engineering from Stanford and Columbia Universities and is a Fellow of the Institution of Fire Engineers. He first headed groups working on data issues for manned spaceflight then management science for the Bell System. Schaenman’s career morphed into applying those skills to data analysis for the fire service. He was associate administrator of the United States Fire Administration for five years, heading the National Fire Data Center and Technology Program. Schaenman then founded TriData, which does consulting and research on public safety issues, especially fire protection and EMS.

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