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 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.