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Facts not fear: Using data in a small department

How small fire departments can make data-based decisions

April 27, 2020
By Jay Plato

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Data has served the small town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., well. Data helped the fire department determine what public safety messages were most important and relevant to its unique community. Photo Credit: thodonal/Adobe Stock

Through Fire Fighting in Canada magazine, I recently read two different articles showing why data should be driving the decision-making processes within fire departments. This statement is one of the truest statements I have ever read. Far too often, departments continually stick with what they know and what they believe is working. While most departments collect data in some form or another, are they truly making the best use of it? Are they ensuring it is applied to the everyday decision making? What if the data could show that what a department is doing that works could be done better? Our entire industry is based upon serving the public and if we, as fire departments, are not continually trying to achieve service excellence, then what level of service are we providing?

One common theme I noticed within the other articles was the size of the departments that are leading this charge. These departments serve hundreds of thousands of citizens and respond to dozens of calls per day. They employ hundreds of firefighters and may have the resources readily available to assist in mass data collection. One city was able to partner with a handful of universities to organize endless amounts of data. The other had the opportunity to work with a GIS Specialist with over 16 years of experience working for police, fire and other municipalities across the country. When you read these articles and consider each department’s make up, size and partnering abilities it might seem easy to simply think, this concept is for large departments only. I want to clarify and ensure that this is strictly a myth and encourage every small town or volunteer fire department to consider the data driven approach, if not doing so already.

I am currently a deputy fire chief for a small volunteer department in southern Ontario. We are comprised of 110 volunteer firefighters and six full-time staff. We collect and track our data. On average, we run about 600 calls a year across five volunteer stations. The data collection itself is done by the full-time staff. At the beginning this seemed like a daunting task. We were going to go back and collect years’ worth of data to start to put together some better detailed factual information on the trends we were seeing in our small town of approximately 17,500 people. While that collection did take some time to complete, once it was all compiled and organized it has proved itself more valuable than we first believed. Maintaining the data became fairly easy afterwards, as we are able to collect it month by month throughout the year. While our municipality has been fortunate enough to hire a full-time GIS technician, her primary role is working with the operations and engineering departments within the town. We have been able to utilize this position when we can to assist in mapping our data. Even without the aid of a GIS tech, mapping this data does not need to be overly complicated. As quoted in the December issue of Fire Fighting in Canada in the article, “Improving Efficiency with Data” by Jin Y. Xie: “In emergency services, nothing can beat visual representation.” When the data is collected, analyzed and displayed visually it can become an incredible supporting tool for all decisions that a department or municipality can make. This visual support can become a tough thing to argue against or disagree with.

In a small town it can be difficult to pinpoint where new stations should be located, where new or replaced apparatus should be placed, where to target your public education messages or where to target your prevention efforts. Small towns can often also be subject to pressures from the public or other stakeholders that can try to use the emotional side of emergency responses to influence decisions. When smaller communities may not have an incident for two or three days, if this information is not tracked and stored properly, future decisions are often based on these emotional influences or the fears, not the facts. Consider a central main road in town has three or four motor vehicles collisions a year — to the public this information can drive the fear that this road is dangerous. When collecting the facts, it may be shown that other areas of town experience significantly more motor vehicle collisions. However, because these areas are not central thoroughfares and the public is less aware of the incidents, the fear that these roads are dangerous is not as prevalent. To provide the public with the best service they deserve, we need to ensure station and apparatus placement or other safety decisions are made based on the facts, not the fears.

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As a small department it is easy to replace an apparatus with the same or very similar apparatus. By collecting and reviewing the data, it may be shown that a different style of apparatus might better suit the community. It could even be shown that a replacement apparatus should be located at a different station. Many small communities are growing and are not the same as they were 10, 20 or 30 years ago. What worked before might not be serving the public as efficiently as it once was.

Smoke and carbon monoxide alarm messaging will always be the primary focus that fire departments put out there. What is your municipality’s second most important message? Many will say cooking-related fires, which may be true for your community if you have collected the data. After reviewing the data we collected from incidents, we realized we needed to refocus our efforts onto electrical hazard safety messaging. It was the data that confirmed this was our community’s largest issue, even over installing and replacing smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. If departments are not reviewing and analyzing the data from incidents, they may be spreading fire safety messages, that while all important, are not as effective in their community.

The province of Ontario has mandated that community risk assessments be completed within five years of July 1, 2019. This risk assessment is just the beginning of what I believe departments can do to ensure that they are providing the service excellence we should be.

In a conversation with a colleague it was noted that part of my current job description now includes data analytics. While it was directly not said, it was easy to infer that data analytics was not something he believed should have been in the forefront of fire department responsibilities. I could understand his thinking as data analytics is not one of the three lines of defense. However, it should be the backbone for all three lines to ensure they are being completed in a manner that provides the public with the service excellence they deserve. Numerous articles have been written on the benefits of data driven decisions. The NFPA has even produced documents referencing its effects and use. This is by no way a new concept either, in fact its decades old. When it comes to small towns however, I revert back to my earlier statement: While most departments collect data in some form or another, are they truly making the best use of it?


Jay Plato is the Deputy Fire Chief – Community Risk Reduction for the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake Fire and Emergency Services. You can reach Jay at jay.plato@notl.com.


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