Author(s): Don Bliss. Published on March 1, 2016.

Big Data, Global Data

Why it’s critical to gather and evaluate fire data from around the world


The headlines from around the world are becoming all too frequent: “Massive New Year’s Eve fire erupts at luxury Dubai hotel”; “23 killed in Russian mental clinic fire”; “Workers trapped in garment factory fire in Bangladesh.”

The stories shock and sadden us, and we focus, even if momentarily, on fire protection issues in faraway places. Sometimes we learn something new that can be applied to fire protection practices in the U.S. or that could contribute to a change in an NFPA standard. More often than not, though, the fire’s cause, the building performance, and the human loss are the results of factors that are well known and preventable.

Unfortunately, these high-profile incidents don’t tell us much about the global fire problem. Few nations collect detailed information about fire, and some won’t reveal the data that they do collect. Insurance loss data can be useful, but even the definition of a “fire death” can vary from country to country. Without accurate fire data, governments and safety advocates are unable to justify the need for fire prevention, public education, and code enforcement capabilities, and they cannot effectively budget for and deploy firefighting resources or build resilience for natural and man-made disasters.

Global fire data, synchronized with big data, can offer us a clearer understanding of how demographic trends, economic shifts, fire service operational capabilities, and human behavior will impact fire deaths, injuries, property loss, and community resilience. This is particularly important in developing nations, where rapid urbanization can result in increased population densities, substandard housing, high-rise construction with little regard for code compliance, and a lack of adequate water supplies for fire protection. Without good fire data, little will be done to alleviate what the World Bank describes as “small, chronic disasters”: fires that kill and injure people, destroy property, and serve as major obstacles to establishing robust and healthy societies.

We know a lot about the U.S. fire problem thanks in part to the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS), which, along with other data sources, enables NFPA to produce an array of reports and studies on the causes of fire and its impact on society. Our new strategic initiative focusing on data collection and analysis includes activities to improve the quality and usability of U.S. fire data and will support the development of fire data systems in other nations.

For many years, NFPA has co-authored the annual “World Fire Statistics” report, issued by the International Association of Fire & Rescue Services, which offers data on fire issues from 80 countries and 90 capital cities. NFPA is collaborating with the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and the Canadian Council of Fire Marshals and Fire Commissioners as they build a national pilot database to systematically record fire incidents. NFPA has provided technical advice and financial support for the development of the National Statistical Register for Fire and Incidents in Argentina, and it is hoped that this system will serve as a model for the implementation of similar systems throughout Latin America.

We have just begun to scratch the surface in analyzing the global fire problem. Today’s big-data capabilities will produce useful, actionable guidance for strategies that save lives.

DONALD P. BLISS is vice president of Field Operations for NFPA. Top Photograph: Imaginechina/ Splash News/ Newscom