Author(s): Casey Grant. Published on November 1, 2016.

Dollar Figures

Why it's important to quantify the economic impact of the fire service


OUR NEW VISION STATEMENT unveiled last year proclaims NFPA “the leading global advocate for the elimination of death, injury, property and economic loss due to fire, electrical and related hazards.” While some of this was already familiar, a noteworthy addition is the inclusion of the word “economic.”

Just as fire has a cost, safety is not free. Every community and public safety agency must ask itself how many resources it is willing to commit to the pursuit of safety. Just as important is understanding the cost of not deploying those resources. Today’s firefighters do a lot, and we need to say it more. The safety community needs to demonstrate its value more often than it does, and we need the tools to do so.

This past August, NFPA hosted a meeting at its headquarters called “Economic Decision Making in Fire and Electrical Safety: A Workshop on Needs and Resources.” The event included fire officials, researchers, and others from around the country who demonstrated new ways of looking at old financial problems. Presenters highlighted various tools and novel cost-benefit analysis methods that now exist to help the fire service quantify the economic benefits of its efforts, as well as the costs and benefits associated with code adoption. A full workshop report will soon be available on NFPA’s Research Group site.

Everyone knows it costs money for a fire department to respond to a fire. But what would the economic cost be if there were fewer firefighters deployed to the fire? What if no firefighters arrived? We can now provide hard numbers for comparing outcomes under different scenarios by using proven methods such as quantitative risk assessment, life cycle assessment, sensitivity analysis, and cost-benefit analysis.

Some may argue that we are already properly accounting for the value-added aspect of what we spend on fire protection by measuring direct property loss from a disastrous fire. But how should we consider the indirect losses associated with those events? How well do we account for lost jobs, uncollected taxes, damage to the environment, compromised reputations, and other elusive metrics?

An array of tools to measure the fire service’s impact on communities are currently in development; in some cases, the first prototypes of those tools have already arrived. The report titled “Development of an Environmental and Economic Assessment Tool (Enveco Tool) for Fire Events,” published by the Fire Protection Research Foundation this year, for instance, can quantitatively assess the economic and environmental impacts of a fire department’s actions during a warehouse fire. Other tools and data analytics are on the way.

Historians and media often focus on the many fires throughout history with disastrous economic consequences, such as the 1953 motor vehicle transmission plant fire that shut down the U.S auto industry or the 1967 Apollo 1 launchpad fire that redefined the space race. But it’s also critically important not to lose focus on the smaller fire events that make up the bulk of our annual fire loss. It’s even more important to not lose focus on the saves, where firefighter intervention ensured that losses did not occur. Where is the hard credit for all this good work? Every small fire extinguished is one less potential major catastrophe.

Placing a dollar amount on the social and human cost of fire is a challenge, but when budget cuts loom on the horizon, justifying the role of those who save lives and property is paramount. The harm to the community needs to be quantified, and the story told. Providing these measurements is imperative. Without them, the justification of the intrinsic value we bring to the community will remain elusive.

CASEY GRANT is executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.