Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on December 29, 2014.

IN THE NATIONAL FIRE INCIDENT REPORTING SYSTEM, or NFIRS, the tool used by fire departments nationwide to report on their activities, the cause of ignition in almost three out of every five home fire deaths over the last five years is listed as “unknown.”

That finding, by the United States Fire Administration (USFA) and NFPA, represents a significant gap in fire reporting, as well as an impediment to devising strategies that deal with underlying issues. “If we don’t know what is causing these fires, we really can’t work effectively to prevent them with solutions that specifically address the root problems,” said Butch Browning, the Louisiana state fire marshal and president of the National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM).

To address those gaps in fire reporting data, NASFM has launched a free, online training program for the fire service. The program, called “Understanding Your Role in Fire Incident Data,” aims to help fire departments across the nation develop stronger reporting practices, especially with NFIRS, which was established by the National Fire Data Center and the USFA.

“By explaining to firefighters and chief officers the critical importance of accurately reporting the cause of fires, big and small, in their communities, we can go a long ways towards closing this gap,” Browning said.

Marty Ahrens, NFPA’s senior manager of Fire Analysis Services, agrees that expanding the fire service’s knowledge of the importance of incident reporting is critical. “Over the years, I’ve talked with a lot of firefighters, and too many were surprised to learn that our analyses of fire causes and circumstances are based on the data they provide in their fire incident reports,” she said.

Ahrens said the data supplied by fire departments is “vitally important” to answer an array of questions, including the frequency of a particular problem, whether code changes are needed, what NFPA’s priorities should be for public education and advocacy, the types of fire scenarios that can be expected under different situations, how products should be tested, how firefighters are being injured, and many more. 

The new training program is part of a wider project undertaken by NASFM’s Fire Education Research Foundation that also hopes to determine the root causes of the reporting gaps themselves. Thus far, the research has identified four trouble areas contributing to the data gap: a disconnect between those who make the initial fire report entry and the fire investigator; reluctance by fire departments to enter the cause of the fire for fear of litigation; the impression among some members of the fire service that the reported information doesn’t matter; a perception that the NFIRS systems are overly complex. All of those trouble spots are addressed in the training program.

The online course takes about one hour to complete and can be found at nasfm-training.org. Those completing the course can receive a certificate of completion that can be used for continuing education requirements. The self-guided training program can also be incorporated into recruit training at a fire academy or station level and used by full-time, call, and volunteer fire departments.

“A firefighter who completes a fire incident report is participating in an ongoing national research project that provides information to better protect life and property,” Ahrens said. “We’re very grateful to every firefighter who takes the time to carefully complete these reports.”

JESSE ROMAN is staff writer at NFPA Journal.