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3 things your fire department can do to lessen our country’s data problems

Focus on the “why,” make it personal and bring the reporting under one system


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When I began building my department’s mobile integrated healthcare (MIH) program, the first step was to establish a clear picture of where we were as an agency. I needed to know what we were doing well, what we could do better, and identify our biggest problems. I needed charts, spreadsheets and graphs – I needed data. Without it, I would never be able to prove the need, or impact, of any organizational change.

Considering the amount of time fire officers spent completing reports after every incident, I assumed it would be easy. But when I began digging in, I realized that finding good data was like hunting for Easter eggs.

"If fire-based EMS services hope to ever get on the same page nationwide, then we must first get on the same page at home," writes Thompson. (Photo/ESO)

A national problem

I had the opportunity recently to hear U.S. Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell speak about the challenges facing today’s fire service. Problem No. 1: We need to get better at recording our own data. Antiquated record systems, erroneous reporting as well as lack of participation are holding us back.

Based on my own experience, I have to agree. Data doesn’t just grease the wheels or pedal the bike – it is the bike. From the chambers of our local city council to the halls of congress, data is king. Fire-based EMS services everywhere must do better. And the change starts with us.

Here are three ways your fire department can do its part to solve our nation’s data problems.

1. Stop training how to do a report without training on the why of the report.

Like most people I know, I learned how to complete NFIRS and patient care reports on the job. My teachers weren’t training officers; they were fellow firefighters and senior paramedics assigned to my station. My documentation training occurred during the downtime between station duties, hands-on training sessions and emergency calls. I was the new guy, eager to please, so I didn’t ask many questions.

When it came to NFIRS, I was told simply “to get the red out” – a reference to all the mandatory fields highlighted in red that had to be filled out in order to complete the report. And regarding patient care reports, they were done for one reason – to cover me legally if I ever ended up on the wrong side of the courtroom. No one ever explained the impact my reports would have on obtaining grants, purchasing new equipment, or advancing firefighter safety. They were just something I had to do to protect myself and to keep my chief happy.

2. Make the data personal

About 10 years ago, a fellow firefighter at my department discovered that he could generate a report that showed the number of house fires he had responded to through the years. Pretty soon everyone ran the same report and compared their numbers over the kitchen table. This house fire statistic led to other queries. People wanted to know how many medical calls they had run, how many gunshot wounds, and even the number of false alarms.

For most of us, it was the first time in our careers that we actually saw where we fit in among the data collected from our NFIRS reports. The data became personal, which in turn made it interesting.

By sharing data internally among firefighters serving on the frontline, chiefs can motivate their personnel to become more active participants in the data-collection process. Because even the saltiest firefighter appreciates statistics that can back up their right to brag over dinner.

3. Bring everything under one system

Fire-based EMS services have traditionally used two separate systems for incident reporting. One system is for NFIRS and another is for electronic patient care reports. This is how my department operated when I began building our MIH program, and it was the source of constant headaches. No matter how specific I narrowed down my data queries, it seemed like I was getting the story of two fire departments.

And if you multiply the problems I experienced at my own agency by the 27,184 fire departments in the United States, you can understand the data problems Dr. Moore-Merrell is experiencing at the national level.

If fire-based EMS services hope to ever get on the same page nationwide, then we must first get on the same page at home. Bringing NFIRS and patient care reports together under one umbrella needs to a priority of every fire chief. This will save time, increase accuracy and gain more operational efficiencies for the department.

Bottom line: If we can’t clearly show where we are, then we’ll never get to where we need to be.

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