Research is a Congressionally mandated mission of the U.S. Fire Administration, although their activities are limited by funding and staffing challenges. “A lot of what we do is work with other agencies and organizations that are conducting research,” says G. Keith Bryant, U.S. Fire Administrator. “We have the data to help them with their research.” Research partners include Underwriters Laboratories (UL), the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and various institutions of higher learning.

The U.S. Fire Administration also collects data from a variety of sources to provide information and analyses on the status and scope of the fire problem in the United States. The fire service can use this data to increase awareness, set priorities and/or motivate corrective action. The data can also help to target public education programs and create a baseline for evaluating programs.

Collecting the data

“We do a fair amount of reports that go out nationally, on firefighter fatalities, for example, or fires at educational institutions,” says Bryant. One recent report covered health and wellness issues specific to female firefighters.

Streamlined systems are needed at the local level to maximize data input

Local fire departments provide data to the National Internet Fire Reporting System (NIFRS), and streamlined systems are needed at the local level to maximize data input and ensure accuracy. “The system could use modernization, but that takes funding,” says Bryant. “The software might not be as detailed and accurate as it could be.”

A big challenge facing the fire service is collection and analysis of accurate data. The need for data extends to issues such as occupational-related cancer among firefighters: Is there accurate data about how bad the problem is and where resources should be focused? Another issue is mental health: Data is needed to confront the issues in a positive way.

The challenges of data collection

Working with the fire service leadership at the local level can help to meet the challenges of data collection. “We get into those discussions – honest, frank discussions – about what they can do in their agencies to provide more oversight,” says Bryant. “Everybody understands there is a huge need for it.”

Local participation ensures maximum value of data collected nationally, and compliance among departments is a “mixed bag,” says Bryant. Data collection is also a tool to help local departments to get the funding they need.

Accurate data is needed about the amount of property, dollars and lives that are lost

Related to firefighting, accurate data is needed about the amount of property, dollars and lives that are lost. Specific to the growing problem of wildfires, data is needed about which areas are at risk and the nature of the challenges. More information is also needed on occupational-related cancer, for example, which is a serious concern among firefighters.

“We need to do a better job of collecting and recording data, and using it in a better way,” says Bryant. “And we need to do it on a more consistent basis nationally.”

User conscientiousness

User conscientiousness is also an issue: “In some cases, firefighters just want to get through that incident report ASAP, so they may not be as detailed, or fill in all the fields,” says Bryant.

During the 45 years of the U.S. Fire Administration’s existence, there has been a significant reduction in reported fires, reflecting a gradual positive trend. The 1973-74 “America Burning” report, which led to establishment of the U.S. Fire Administration, noted that there were more than 3 million fires annually then, compared to the current yearly average of around 1.3 million. Fire fatalities were counted in the tens of thousands several years ago, but there are only about 3,000 a year now. Firefighter fatalities have been cut in half, and there are fewer firefighters injured, too. “These are huge successes, but it doesn’t mean we’re there yet,” says Bryant. “We still have work to do. We don’t take direct credit, but the improvements are based on us working together with the fire service industry.”

Location of communities adjacent to areas prone to wildfires, the so-called wildfire urban interface (WUI), has impacted how wildfires are controlled and managed. At one time, the approach was to control a wildfire rather than to extinguish it, but not anymore. “People have moved into those areas,” says Bryant. “Now you have to take a different approach.” Recent tragedies in Paradise and Santa Rosa, Calif., reflect the problem. In the last eight years, there have been resulting increases in property losses and fire fatalities.

In the last eight years, there have been resulting increases in property losses and fire fatalities

Fires, injuries, deaths, and property loss

Specifically, statistics show there were 1.3 million fires in 2017, down 6.2% from 2008, and injuries were down 15.8% to 14,670. However, there were 3,400 deaths in 2017, up 9.6% from 2008; and property loss amounted to $23.0 billion, up 12%.

Also contributing to the problem is a trend toward lightweight construction and reliance on different materials, such as chemicals, plastics and particle board as examples. These materials burn much hotter and faster, thus reducing the possible time to escape.

And in spite of campaigns to increase use of smoke alarms, there are still some properties that are not protected. “There is still a lot of work to be done,” says Bryant. 

Share with LinkedIn Share with Twitter Share with Facebook Share with Facebook
Download PDF version Download PDF version

Author profile

Larry Anderson Editor,, Notting Hill Media

In case you missed it

In A Busy Wildfire Season, Researchers Seek New Approaches
In A Busy Wildfire Season, Researchers Seek New Approaches

It makes perfect sense that a horrific wildfire season would come in the year 2020 on the heels of a pandemic. Dozens of major fires burned across North America in September, including 85 large uncontained fires and six contained fires across 12 states. Active fires have burned more than 3 million acres already, and 41,417 fires have burned almost 5 million acres year-to-date. The severity of the wildfire season is on track to surpass the 10-year average. Better understanding wildfires Global warming is often mentioned as a contributor to the wildfires, but there are other factors, too. Increasingly, researchers are looking to apply new approaches in address the risk of wildfires. They include tools such as deep learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to better understand wildfires and to control their intensity. The model could be used to reveal areas of greatest risk for wildfires A new deep learning model uses remote sensing and satellite data to trace fuel moisture levels across 12 Western states, in effect tracking the amount of easily burnable plant material and how dry it is. After additional testing is complete, the model could be used to reveal areas of greatest risk for wildfires and to plan the best areas for prescribed burns. Led by a Stanford University ecohydrologist, the research was published in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment. Recurrent neural network The model uses data from the U.S. Forest Service’s National Fuel Moisture Database, which amasses plant water content information from thousands of samples. Using a ‘recurrent neural network,’ the system leverages the fuel moisture data to corroborate measurements of visible light and microwave radar signals from spaceborne sensors that are tasked with estimating fuel moisture measurements. Newer satellites with longer wavelengths allow sensitive observations about moisture content deeper into the forest canopy. Estimates from the model are used to generate interactive maps that fire agencies may one day use to identify patterns and prioritize wildfire control estimates. Researchers are also working to analyze the impact of better and more efficient firefighting on the size and frequency of wildfires. The theory goes: When firefighters extinguish smaller vegetation fires, a consequence is the creation of an environment where wildfires are larger and/or more frequent. Natural cycle of regeneration Older woods will naturally catch fire from the sun’s heat to make way for fresh growth The theory is based on the premise that wildfires play an essential role in the periodic regeneration of forests. Older woods will naturally catch fire from the sun’s heat to make way for fresh growth. However, more efficient firefighting can disrupt the natural cycle and, along with global warming, aggravate the broader likelihood of larger and more frequent fires. Researchers at the WiFire Lab in California and the University of Alberta in Canada are using artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze the environment and provide recommendations for prescribed burns that can save some parts of the forest without interfering with the natural cycle of regeneration. Providing early warning of wildfires Equipment operated by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) caused 2018’s Camp Fire, the most destructive wildfire in California history. Because of the threat of sparking a wildfire, PG&E this year shut off power to 172,000 customers in Northern California on Labor Day weekend, for example. A concern is the threat of winds tearing down power line or hurling debris into them. Southern California Edison (SCE), another utility, warned that about 55,000 customer accounts could lose power. California utilities SCE, PG&E and San Diego Gas and Electric are helping to fund a network of ALERTWildfire video cameras in California that will help to provide early warning of wildfires. Video cameras keep watch throughout five Western United States to provide early warning, and the number of cameras is growing fast.

Should Firefighters And First Responders Use Face Masks?
Should Firefighters And First Responders Use Face Masks?

Should firefighters and other first responders be exempt from requirements that they wear face masks to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19)? The City Council of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, seems to think so. They are proposing an amendment to exempt first responders from complying with the city’s face mask ordinance. Amendment to Exempt first responders from face mask rule Specifically, the proposed amendment states, “Exempted from the requirements of the ordinance requiring wearing of face coverings include law enforcement personnel, first responders or other workers, who are actively engaged in their tasks, if wearing a face covering may hinder their performance.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone wear masks in public settings The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone wear masks in public settings, especially when social distancing cannot be maintained. The CDC does not specify a need to exempt first responders. However, there is a possibility that a mask could interfere with the work of firefighters or first responders, especially when they are performing tasks that require physical exertion. Face masks can inhibit communication among first responders Face masks, covering the mouth and nose, could also inhibit communication by muffling sound and obstructing facial expressions. Obviously, communication is of paramount importance for firemen working as a team in an emergency, or when a first responder is seeking to give clear directions to the public. The issue of face masks has been inexorably entwined with the well-being of first responders, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Early on during the infection spread, health officials dismissed face masks as a tool to avoid spread of the disease. They said that the masks were ineffective at preventing community spread and that, supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to be conserved for health professionals and first responders. Importance of face masks in controlling spread of COVID-19 However, the early advice was completely reversed in late March 2020 and masks have been advocated ever since. A mask, worn by an infected individual, reduces the dispersion of virus-laden droplets that spread the disease. Now, experts contend that any type of mask, including cloth or paper, can help to reduce spread of the COVID-19 virus. Expanding the use of masks to include those that are not conformant with the N-95 classification effectively eliminated any concerns about supply and helped to make the widespread use of masks the norm. To some extent, however, mask usage in the United States has been politicized and some see the requirements as an affront to liberty. Need for wearing face masks in public Masks are a useful preventative measure for firefighters working together in a communal area Fire and emergency departments face the same challenges as other businesses and institutions, as they seek to remain safe in a communal workspace. Masks are a useful preventative measure for firefighters working together in a communal area or when training or resting. Wearing masks in public also allows departments to model best practices and promote a positive perception of the department to the public. Disciplined use of face masks demonstrates unselfishness and respect for others. It communicates professionalism and concern for the greater good. Masks go a long way in saving lives of first responders Perception may also be an issue when it comes to the choice of masks, which become a de facto part of a uniform. Masks with political statements should be avoided, for example. Considering that dozens of American fire and EMS members have died of COVID-19 infection, since March 2020, the use of masks is another way that firefighters can work to save lives. However, sufficient flexibility is needed so that the use of masks does not interfere with other lifesaving duties.

What Are the New Trends in Firefighting Equipment?
What Are the New Trends in Firefighting Equipment?

Equipment is an important element in fighting fires, and in keeping firefighters safe. But what new needs are driving the development of equipment? How can equipment expand its role in fighting fires, or in managing building occupancy and traffic flow for that matter? We asked our Expert Panel Roundtable: What are the new trends and opportunities in firefighting equipment?