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November December 2014
November December 2014
In A Flash
Finding Meaning in Data
Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on November 5, 2014.
THIS PAST JULY, Christina Holcroft joined NFPA as director of the organization’s
Fire Analysis and Research Division
, which provides all manner of data to support decision-making related to the fire problem. Holcroft was previously an assistant professor of medicine at the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at Tufts University in Boston, where her research examined issues related to workplace health and safety, including methods by which data analysis can contribute to advances in healthcare. She holds a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, M.S. and ScD degrees in biostatistics from the Harvard School of Public Health, and received postdoctoral training at the University of Massachusetts–Lowell.
Why did you decide to join NFPA?
The job announcement started out with, “Do you want to make a difference?” This question has always motivated me, and I opened the announcement to see if it was real. NFPA has impressed me from the beginning. It is a unique and vibrant organization that has the ability and the commitment to put research into action.
How did your background lead you to NFPA?
Fortunately my school and career path has given me a variety of tools I can apply to my research job at NFPA. In college, I chose to study bioelectrical engineering. After graduating, the field of public health really appealed to me, so I studied biostatistics and graduated from the Harvard School of Public Health.
My first research job was in occupational health and safety in the Work Environment Department at the University of Massachusetts–Lowell. The environment was very collaborative, and I worked with faculty and staff in epidemiology, industrial hygiene, ergonomics, and policy. I learned how to write research proposals and experienced the challenges and rewards of doing field research. Later, I served as a statistical consultant in a clinical setting in Montreal at a teaching hospital affiliated with McGill University, and also in Boston at Tufts Medical Center.
How and when did you become interested in data analysis?
I have always enjoyed math and the problem-solving aspects of data analysis. One main reason I pursued a degree in data analysis was that the techniques and methods could be applied to many different areas in the public health, clinical research, and safety fields.
What’s your 25-words-or-less definition of the mission of the Fire Analysis and Research Division?
To provide a solid fact base about the causes and circumstances of fires in the real world and how these conditions are changing.
Where do you get your information?
Most of the data we analyze comes from the fire service—either directly, through our annual fire department experience survey, fire service inventory, needs assessments, and reports about fires of interest, or indirectly, through the U.S. Fire Administration’s National Fire Incident Reporting System, or NFIRS.
What are some of the projects your division is working on?
We continue our core activities of documenting fatalities and losses and analysis of causes of fire using NFIRS data, in coordination with our NFPA survey data, because this is the backbone of our division. In 2015, we will also send out a needs assessment survey to the fire service, where we go into more detail with respect to personnel and their capabilities, facilities and equipment, and ability to handle challenging incidents. Thanks in advance to the fire departments who complete these surveys—your participation makes the difference and provides information for decisions made at the local, state, and national levels. We will also contact some fire departments in the wildland/urban interface to gain a better understanding of the lessons learned after experiencing a wildland fire.
Are there topics that demand further exploration, or that interest you personally?
My opinion is that research has a much larger impact when it is coordinated with other initiatives and collaborators, so my choice of future projects would be based on these criteria. Personally, I am still interested in workplace health and safety issues—at individual and organizational levels, and also tied into community health.
Is it proper to ask a statistician to differentiate between what is likely to happen and what could happen?
Actually, that isn’t something we learn in statistics classes—those words don’t have a fixed meaning or interpretation, so it just depends on how they’re being used. For statisticians, it’s the description of the data and findings that really provide meaning and context.
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