Author(s): Kathleen Almand. Published on July 1, 2014.

In March, NFPA’s Fire Analysis and Research Division, in cooperation with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, held a workshop for the major U.S. fire organizations that are leaders in collecting or using fire experience data. The goal of the workshop was to review how we gather, analyze, and use fire loss data—the information that we all use to frame our programs, activities, and reasons for our existence—and to explore how we could work together to make those processes more effective.

Download the workshop Report: Today and Tomorrow's Fire Data.

We began with an overview of the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS), the bedrock of our fire loss data system and the envy of those around the world who do not have a national data collection system. NFPA, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), and the Consumer Product Safety Commission all publish estimates of fire loss based on this data.

Using sophisticated analysis, we can transform this raw data into facts that many of us rely on to benchmark the fire problem, monitor the impact of new technologies and hazards, and prioritize policies and programs to maximize their impact. The basic national estimates approach, developed jointly by staff in the three organizations more than 25 years ago, combines the details collected by NFIRS with estimates derived from NFPA’s annual fire department experience survey.

We heard from federal, state, and local fire agencies about how they use this data to make decisions about resource allocation, program priorities, and more. We also heard from insurers and public health researchers about other data sets they might use to inform the problem.

Then we rolled up our sleeves to address some important questions. For example, how can we make data gathering and reporting easier and more efficient for local fire departments in a time of declining resources? There are many facets to this issue, including competing demands for data to meet varying needs, understanding and addressing the reasons for incomplete records, ways to improve the quality of data through training and system improvement, and the potential role for technology in facilitating data gathering and reporting. We discussed means to link the various existing and desired data gathering systems to reduce redundancy and ease the burden at the local level.

In addition, we asked how we could enrich the data we collect and analyze it to make it more valuable. Several presentations described other types of desirable data, such as operations data, near-miss data, and integrated wildland fire data, among others. We also discussed the need to make the data more accessible and relevant to those in the data collection and analysis chain.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we asked what steps we need to take in the near and longer term to improve our current system and ensure its future relevance. We talked about the role of NFPA technical committees as a means to bring the community together to develop the vision and framework for the future data system and how NFPA and other organizations might support USFA in moving forward with future versions of NFIRS.

I think everyone left the event with a shared sense of urgency, as well as optimism—this is a new era for data science, and there is great potential here. We also share a commitment to continue to work together on these issues. Without good, relevant data, properly analyzed and made available to those who can use it at the local, state, and federal levels, we will not have the information we need to continue to reduce nation’s burden of fire.

Kathleen H. Almand, P.E., FSFPE, is vice president, Research, at NFPA, and executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation