By Irwin Cohen and Len Garis
As budgets grow leaner and public expectations continue to rise, decision makers in the public service are increasingly seeking hard data to make sound and justifiable decisions.
This trend toward evidence-based decision making is turning administrators into researchers. Those delving into public-safety topics can now access an extensive database of information about fire, police, drugs, and public safety through a new search portal created by the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) in British Columbia.
Available on the UFV’s Centre for Public Safety and Criminal Justice Research new website, http://cjr.ufv.ca, the portal provides access to thousands of reports, articles, books, legislation, and other data from Canada and around the world collected by the centre’s public-safety search database.
The concept for the project was born at a meeting of Defence Research and Development Canada’s Centre for Security Science (CSS) about two years ago. At that time, the Canadian public-safety experts and administrators involved in the CSS identified a lack of public access to the public-safety data needed to support evidence-based decision making.
This gap had also been noted by British Columbia’s Fire Services Liaison Group, which represents all British Columbia fire-service agencies, in its 2009 report to the provincial government entitled Public Safety in British Columbia: Transforming the Fire/Rescue Service. The report had called on the provincial government to establish a mechanism for the collection of data, trends and best practices in order to support effective decision making and improved service delivery by fire departments.
The UFV’s Centre for Public Safety and Criminal Justice Research took on the challenge of developing the database and portal, which went live Aug. 1.
The project dovetails with the centre’s commitment to increase the knowledge of those working in public safety and to sharing best practices and research. The centre regularly provides its research and consulting expertise to criminal-justice agencies, governments, public-safety agencies, and community organizations on issues related to improving the efficiency and effectiveness of public-safety operations and proposed initiatives.
According to the authors of a recent manual on the subject, it is worth expending the effort to collect the evidence needed for sound decisions – particularly difficult ones that may need to be justified with taxpayers or superiors.
“Evidence-based decision making is one of the more effective tools you can use to rationalize why a particular approach or program option was chosen,” says The Right Decision: Evidence-based Decision Making for Fire Service Professionals, published in 2013 by Paul Maxim, Len Garis and Darryl Plecas and available on the centre website.
The authors say that policies and strategies based on evidence often produce better results, which can increase decision makers’ creditability and support for their departments. On the other hand, policies and programs not guided by sound evidence frequently cost too much, waste resources or simply yield poor or unknown results. Additionally, a lack of compelling evidence may result in a funding request being turned down.
Good decision making, the authors say, needs to be informed as much as possible by evidence, research, and sound information.
“We make and justify evidence-based decisions by referencing independently supported and verifiable facts,” the authors say. “This approach helps ensure the decisions we make are sound and defensible. Used effectively, evidence-based approaches can help you produce the results for which you are searching.”
With this in mind, the new search portal is an essential tool for decision makers seeking independent, verifiable evidence on which to base decisions related to public safety.
Searches of the Public Safety Search Database can be initiated through the link in the top navigation bar on the website.
The portal’s user-friendly search functions offer a variety of filters to allow users to quickly hone in on the information they require.
Basic searches can be conducted by keyword, title, or author, or by using advanced options, such as Boolean searches – e.g. using “and” between words to combine all terms (house and fire), using “or” between words to view results with at least one of the terms (college or university), and using “not” in front of a word you wish to exclude from the search (fires not house).
All entries include author and publisher details, and some can be read online for free. Users of the portal can filter their search results by publication date, source type (electronic resources, academic journals, books, reports and ebooks), subject, publisher, publication, language, location, and content provider.
As an example, a basic keyword search for “house fire” on the portal brings up 271 entries, including 210 electronic resources, four academic journals, two books, two reports and one ebook.
Digging deeper into one of the entries – Experimental Results of a Residential House Tire Test on Tenability: Temperature, Smoke and Gas Analyses – leads to a summary page including publisher and author information, the document type, index terms, a link to the web address to obtain the study, and other details.
In another example, a basic keyword search for “marijuana” finds 932 entries. From there, an advanced search can be conducted using various search terms or phrases, or by limiting the results by publication date, author, language, availability and peer review.
Clicking the peer-reviewed option reduces the results to 208, for example, while adding the search term “Alberta” narrows the results to three entries.
Alternatively, limiting the source types to academic journals brings up 236 results.
The database will continue to grow over time as new research becomes available.
In addition to using the portal, visitors to http://cjr.ufv.ca can peruse dozens of research reports that have been produced by the centre on a wide range of fire, police, drugs, and public safety topics. Recent reports address topics as varied as the safety of smart-meter installations, a risk-based framework for scheduling fire-safety inspections, intermodal shipping-container safety, police-based crime reduction, and the nature and extent of marijuana possession in British Columbia.
Plans are in the works to add reports from other agencies, institutions, and organizations to the website, and to allow other researchers to submit their reports to be published by the centre and available to the public on the website.
Len Garis is the Fire Chief for the City of Surrey, B.C., past president of the Fire Chiefs’ Association of BC, an adjunct professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of the Fraser Valley, research professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice / The Regenhard Centre for Emergency Response Studies New York and a member of the Institute of Canadian Urban Research Studies, Simon Fraser University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Irwin M. Cohen is an associate professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of the Fraser Valley, the holder of the University Senior Research Chair, RCMP for Crime Reduction, and the director of the Centre for Public Safety and Criminal Justice Research. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @irwinMcohen.