Over the past two years, I’ve had the privilege of teaching our system to departments all over the world, from South Carolina to South Korea. The dedication to service and spirit of camaraderie is palpable at every fire department I visit. Another unmistakable aspect of today’s fire service is our ratio of fire calls compared to medical aid calls. NFPA statistics for 2013 indicate fire departments ran over 21.37 million calls for medical aid versus 1.24 million fire calls. That’s roughly 94% EMS to 6% Fire. Our role in the community sure has changed over the decades. Just as the time we spend running calls has changed, so, too, has the time we spend documenting all of these incidents. That’s what I’d like to discuss with you today: data management.
Lately, I’ve been asking my students the following, Do you spend more time running calls or more time documenting them? Nearly everyone confirms my inkling we spend far more time documenting incidents. Let’s call this what it is: data management. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t join my fire department 23 years ago to be a data manager and I bet you didn’t either.
What is Data Management?
[An] administrative process by which the required data is acquired, validated, stored, protected, and processed, and by which its accessibility, reliability, and timeliness is ensured to satisfy the needs of the data users. – BusinessDictionary.com
When most people I talk to hear this, their reaction is something like, “Wait, what? What in the world does this have to do with being a firefighter? If this is part of my job, I’m outta here!”
I then ask the class this question, So, how many of you have data manager in your job description? Of course, no one does. Why would they? We are people of action and results. That means pulling hoselines, extricating victims from vehicle collisions, and starting the occasional IV. Data management is just a necessary evil so we can have fun, right? Well, sort of, but didn’t we just agree that we spend more time documenting calls than running them? Shouldn’t this be key part of our job descriptions?
Completing a cursory search of various job descriptions across the web confirmed my suspicion Very few mention anything about data management. Many cite the need to write reports. The knowledge-skills-abilities (KSAs) mentioned are typically vague communicate effectively orally and in writing. One KSA example, from Chandler Fire (AZ) goes a little further: Emergency response records systems, communications equipment and use, fire computer applications and incident reporting procedures; Computers and related software.
In addition to the definition above, I recommend taking a peek at NFPA 1001- Standard for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications, Chapter 6.2.1. A requisite knowledge point mentioned here is not just the ability to complete an incident report, but the ability to understand the purpose and usefulness of accurate reports, consequences of inaccurate reports, how to obtain necessary information, and required coding procedures.
Things get a little more advanced in NFPA 1021 Standard for Fire Officer Professional Qualifications, Chapter 5.4.5: Requisite knowledge here includes the data processing system, and the requisite skills include the ability to communicate in writing and to interpret data.
Effective Data Management in the Fire Service
These two NFPA standards are good jump-in points for enhancing our job descriptions. In order to effectively tell our story (and it’s a great story!) to our data users – chiefs, political leaders, and our citizens, we must provide our prospective and current firefighters and officers a clear picture about the reality of their jobs. Yes, it will always be about saving lives, protecting property, and reducing risk. After all, that’s why we joined the fire service in the first place. But a very large part of what we do now is data management. I propose we include those KSAs with even more clarity in our job descriptions from probationary firefighters all the way up to the chief.
Of course, it’s more than just putting it down on paper. It’s also about placing it front-and-center within the organization. Let’s also make data management an essential part of our training arsenal. The entire organization will become better prepared to effectively tell our story to the data users in the community. Our ability to thrive in an economically competitive future depends on it.