Written by Ben May, Board Director, CPSE
Statistical thinking will one day be as necessary for efficient citizenship as the ability to read and write.” – H.G. Wells
Some years ago when I was Fire Commissioner in the suburbs of Seattle, one of the necessary tasks we required after any call was to input the basic call information in the NFRS database. It was the last thing a firefighter wanted to do, and it was not easy to enforce. Today we are learning, especially with a new generation of firefighters raised on technology, that data is becoming the life blood of our service. When I say: ‘life blood’ I mean just that, as in existence. Today, we can tell many stories with statistics. The question we need to ask is: how is our data contributing to the mission of the fire service, and is it moving that mission forward? Many times, with data and statistics, we can get stuck in the minutiae and lose sight of the horizon. We need to link both to the mission. What I’m saying is that now that the fire service has embraced the use of data internally, let’s make sure we have data externally to tell the public what we’re doing so we can keep doing it.
Recently, it seems we view our ability to receive much more accurate data, slicing and dicing it as if it were a new toy: “Look what I can do, daddy and mommy?” We know we’ve shaken off that old saw: 300 years of tradition unimpeded by progress. Honestly, I never understood that one. We have plenty of innovation in our history. And that innovation will become even more necessary as we progress. So what does all of this data have to do with our existence? Everything. Over the last 20 years I wrote in publications like Firehouse and Fire Engineering, that if we didn’t market the results and the reasons for our services’ actions and results we wouldn’t be in existence in a way that gives us pride in our mission. In other words, we might not be a public service, but a private one, if not something else. This has happened in other countries like the company, Falk, in Denmark. While the idea of brand and marketing in the fire service is much more prevalent today, we need to couple the marketing with the intelligent use of data. The recent 21 Century Fire and Emergency Services White Paper speaks directly to this issue, as well as seven more key pillars to move us forward to embrace our future.
The Fire Problem
Years ago America Burning and, later, America Burning Revisited, noted the clear and present fact that we have a “fire problem.” Over the last 10-15 years we constantly hear and read that fire suppression is only 5-7% of our activities. The 21st Century White Paper attempts to address this as ‘Re Identification’ because of this statistic. From a marketing and brand perspective we should keep the name: Fire. The other parts of that nomenclature can reflect other services like ‘rescue.’ I’ve always liked ‘Fire and Life Safety’ but that’s a topic for another conversation. Naturally, this fire problem depends on geography and socio-economics. I receive a Google Alert everyday detailing multiple fires in the United States. Let me repeat that: every day. Speaking of data, here are a few points.
According to NFPA and USFA the statistics in 2019 detail the problem:
Local fire departments responded to 1,291,500 fires in 2019. These fires caused roughly 3,700 civilian deaths, 16,600 civilian injuries and $14.8 billion in property damage. Every 24 seconds, a fire department in the United States responds to a fire somewhere in the nation. A fire occurs in a structure at the rate of one every 65 seconds, and a home fire occurs every 93 seconds.
Seventy-five percent of all fire deaths and 73 percent of all injuries were caused by home fires. Sixty-five percent of all fire deaths resulted from fires in one- or two-family homes and 10 percent were caused by fires in apartments or other multi-family housing.
The Wildland/Urban Interface
When we factor in wildfires the costs are $150B (California alone in 2018) in damage with a loss of 10,488 structures and 31 fatalities. This number is only for CalFire and documents 4.2 million acres burned-more than the last three years combined and the most since records have been kept.
If you don’t think we still have a fire problem, you are not living in America! Compared to other Western and Asian economies we have one hell of a fire problem! Regardless of how we’ve done in the past for downward trends, we’ve still got a problem. Turn on the local TV news in any city USA during the week. Almost certain you’re going to see a house fire. Guess what? This ‘norm’ for us is ‘not normal’ in those other countries. Now, if we do add EMS in the time of COVID, our plates are breaking. We may think we don’t need to bring these facts to our civic leaders and the public we serve. Guess what: we do.
We need to tell our story with data that show our constituencies as well as our community executives the nature of the problem, and how we are dealing with it in detail. This should be more than a one-time annual report, but an on-going dialogue. This gives us the opportunity to gain citizen participation in their own protection-social marketing- through Community Risk Reduction, which includes a good dose of fire prevention targeted where needed. But that’s a detailed discussion for another time.
About Ben May
Ben May is a Board Director for the Center for Public Safety Excellence. He is recently retired Director of Global Corporate Alliances for the Walt Disney Company. Ben has been a fire fighter in Hillandale, MD and Fire Commissioner for Woodinville, WA Fire & Rescue. Ben was a Contributing Editor for Firehouse Magazine for 15 years, a consultant to the USFA and the OSU School of Fire Protection Technology. Ben is a member of EFO, IFE & SFPE. He is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Oklahoma University, with a MA in International Communication from American University.