Author(s): Gregory Cade. Published on January 4, 2016.

Missing Partner

A federal agency's freeze on data sharing threatens
NFPA's responder research.

BY GREGORY B. CADE

In November, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch testified before the full House Committee on the Judiciary. The hearing touched on a broad range of topics, from the terrorist attacks in Paris to civil unrest here at home to security threats in cyberspace. A prevailing theme of the hearing focused on the collection, use, and verification of data, which in this case provided a direct connection to NFPA’s research and data efforts and the vital information it receives from the federal government to conduct that work.

For decades, NFPA has worked closely with the Bureau of Justice Assistance—an arm of the Department of Justice—which administers a program called the Public Safety Officers Benefits Act. The act, which became law in 1976, provides death benefits for firefighters (career and volunteer), law enforcement officers, and other first responders who die in the line of duty in emergency and non-emergency situations. As part of its work to determine and award death benefits, the PSOB collects a large amount of data on these line-of-duty death incidents. Since the 1970s, NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division has worked with the PSOB under a written agreement to share some of this valuable data to better understand the causes of the injuries and deaths that are occurring to fire and emergency medical services first responders. The data is also used by the United States Fire Administration (USFA) in completing its annual reports (online at usfa.gov), and by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), which provides support to surviving family members and promotes firefighter safety through its Everyone Goes Home® 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives.

In the spring of 2014, however, the PSOB stopped sharing this information with partner organizations, including NFPA, citing potential privacy issues around the identities of those who had died. We believe NFPA’s gathering and use of the data from the PSOB files has never included information that would or could be used to identify an individual, and have asked PSOB to reconsider. NFPA has had follow-up communication with PSOB, but the problem remains unresolved.

While we are highly sensitive to the PSOB’s concerns, the sudden elimination of this data is a potentially serious setback for NFPA’s research efforts. The annual reports produced by the Fire Analysis and Research Division inform a wide variety of NFPA codes and standards aimed at defining and addressing trends in responder injuries and deaths. The reports also form the basis for ongoing discussions with Congress and other federal agencies involved in protecting first responders and funding fire service initiatives. The reports have also helped inform valuable safety programs developed for use by the fire service community.

In June, Jim Pauley, NFPA’s president, asked the U.S. Attorney General to intervene. He is requesting a reinstatement of the current agreement with the PSOB, or the creation of a new document that would address any data privacy issues. We remain optimistic as we await word on the next steps from the Attorney General’s office.

As an organization with a mission built on the dissemination of information and knowledge, it is critical for NFPA to regain access to line-of-duty death information gathered by an agency with whom we have had a strong and productive relationship for four decades. Our collaboration is beneficial not just for partner organizations, but also for first responders themselves—the people who risk their lives every day in the service of public safety.

​GREGORY CADE is division director, Government Affairs for NFPA. Top Photograph: Bryan Patrick/Sacramento Bee/MCT/Newscom