ROD AMMON: Welcome to this edition of the IAAI’s CFITrainer.Net podcast. Today, we’re going to talk about the National Association of State Fire Marshal’s "Conquering the Unknowns" research published in 2014 and their subsequent "Closing the Loop" initiative. First, a little background before we talk to today’s guest.
The National Association of State Fire Marshals Fire Research & Education Foundation received a Fire Prevention & Safety grant from FEMA’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program to study the problem of "unknown" fire causes in the National Incident Reporting System, also known as NFIRS. NASFM conducted in-depth interviews with fire department personnel as well as an online survey with nearly 3500 fire department representatives to try to determine why a significant number of fires reported in NFIRS, many of which were serious and fatal fires, were classified as "undetermined" cause and/or missing data about the cause. The significant number of undetermined fire causes jeopardizes the validity of decisions based on NFIRS data - including decisions on research allocation, hazard and risk identification, development of targeted prevention programs, and determination of training priorities. The goals of the research were the following:
1. To obtain a better understanding of why a large percentage of the area of origin of fires are being reported as Undetermined or left blank, and the causal elements of the fires are being reported as Undetermined, or not reported at all, or inappropriately coded as "none" in fire incident data.
2. To report on findings, with an emphasis on strategies for how departments can overcome barriers for more effective fire data reporting.
3. And, to identify gaps that may exist in available resources to educate and train fire department personnel on complete and accurate recording and reporting of fire data, and to create a plan for developing and updating needed resources in the future.
Obviously this issue is of tremendous concern to fire investigators, who are the ones responsible for determining cause and origin of fires. Where was the breakdown in the system that has led to such a data gap about fire causes? What is being done to address the problem? What is the role of individual fire investigators in closing this gap?
Here to talk about NASFM’s findings and discuss these questions is Jim Narva. He’s the Executive Director of the National Association of State Fire Marshals and a former Wyoming State Fire Marshal himself. Director Narva, welcome to the CFITrainer.Net podcast.
JIM NARVA: Thanks Rod. I appreciate the opportunity to talk a little bit about our report and research findings and specifically how they address unknown data and some of those issues that plague all of us in the fire service.
ROD AMMON: We’re very grateful for your time. First, can you give a sense of the scope of the problem of unknowns in the NFIRS database? How big is the problem that you studied?
JIM NARVA: Rod, the problem is really pretty significant, and in really trying to determine just how significant really points back to the problem of unknowns. You know, the information that we don’t know tends to have a snowball effect, and when we don’t know the cause or origin, particularly the cause of a fire or it’s marked unknown, it’s really difficult to get a true grasp of the problem or the issue, and many times, the total number of blank responses or unknown entries is often larger than some of the important categories that are sub-categories, so back to that point of unknowns. It’s a large issue, and everyone recognizes that including the United States Fire Administration.
ROD AMMON: What were the issues that the research identified, and what recommendations did you make to address each of them?
JIM NARVA: We had a number of recommendations that came out of this research and report, specifically as it deals with either not included or underreported information in NFIRS. We have what’s called - what we’ve termed closing the loop, and whether a cause is determined or remains undetermined after an investigation, it’s important that fire departments "close the loop" and they do that by updating the data and the codes in the NFIR incident report. In many cases, we found that there just - fire departments or investigators are simply attaching an investigation report to the incident report, but that doesn’t allow for those using the data, analyzing it to find any of the causal information to be included in analysis because the investigative report is not essentially part of the incident report.
So what we need is, or what the recommendation is, is that we go in after the investigator has completed their investigation, go back into the incident report and... it and update it so that the accurate information is in there. You know, the initial incident report is - typically isn’t by the company and the officer or one of the firefighters, but they don’t do the complete investigation. They may do that preliminary work and turn it over to a more seasoned investigator or someone whose job that is to do, so they take a look at those items, but it’s really just going in and updating the data that’s in there and trying to create education about the importance of doing that. Absent that updated data, they’re - the incident report stands as it was submitted, so we really need to take and address that issue.
ROD AMMON: Can you talk a little bit about liability concerns?
JIM NARVA: Yeah, that’s another one of those, and it actually was another recommendation that came out of the research and report, and it’s really clearing this litigation cloud, and NFPA 921, which is the guide for fire and explosion investigations, our research found it’s had a pretty chilling effect on fire officials and their willingness to put down a cause if they’re not 100% sure of what it is. You know, even in NFPA 921, it doesn’t require 100% certainty, but the perception is, that we found, is that it does require 100% certainty, and so they fear, and the quote that we heard a number of times in this research, was that they would be hung out to dry in court if they put down any kind of cause at all.
So there’s that hesitancy that particularly that preliminary investigation that goes into the incident report, you know, those are not necessarily seasoned fire investigators and they’re concerned about that liability that’s out there; so whether that exists in reality or not is determined on a case by case, but our perception, and those that we worked with and interviewed, that if you do it in good faith and without malice and then follow it up with the investigators putting their information, their investigative information, updating those codes into the incident report that we’ll get a much better picture of what the real fire problem is in our country.
ROD AMMON: Okay, so basically what we’re saying is hey, folks, do everything in good faith, and do it with the best information you can provide.
JIM NARVA: Yeah, and an incident report and an investigative report - you know, our experience that we found was that they’re treated differently in lawsuits, in court rooms, and so we want to try and draw the distinction between those two types of reports, and I’ve gone over those a bit as to who does the incident and who does the investigative report. So the idea is it has to be a team effort to complete that investigation and to complete the report so that we’re getting accurate information into the system on a national level, but that information is also very important to - in a local jurisdiction, to the local fire department. It’s not just to get a handle on what’s - what’s the cause of fire and cause and origin within our country and where to address those resources, but it goes all the way down to the state and local level as well. Without good data, it’s really hard to address a fire problem and - or even to know what it is, so it all starts with that data and those investigative and incident reports.
ROD AMMON: And as - I’ve been around the fire investigation field working with you folks luckily for many years, and I know the importance that the fire investigators, especially the best ones, put on the data that they collect. How can we - is there something you can say or is there a process that you can offer for them to help develop a team or collaboration where they can share this expertise and resources?
JIM NARVA: Yeah, you know, a large part of it is exactly what we’re doing with this conversation today, is trying to develop a team and address those issues that came about and are identified in the report but came about through our research and work on it. It takes a team approach to it, and that begins with even basic training of not only investigators, but the fire service in general, of the value of data and that there really is something that happens to it. You know, there’s a perception, and again, we’ve kind of used a catchy little phrase for each of these recommendations, but one of them is to fill the black hole, and that’s really to - for training for chiefs, fire chiefs, for officers, for frontline personnel on the concept and reasons behind the need for reporting. So it starts out with those folks. If they don’t do a good job and a complete job on their - excuse me - on their incident report, then there’s not a lot for the trained investigator to go in and add to, so it’s really - from a team approach, everybody has to be on board starting with the fire chief, and it goes on down to the rank and file firefighters about the value of it and the need for data and how and what that means to their local department as well as their state and family.
A key piece that we found, and I think it’s something we can relate to most any situation, is we need a - in this case, we advocate finding a data champion within the department, so somebody who understands the need for data, loves it, enjoys it, likes the report side of it, and really advocates and helps instill that knowledge and that value of data within the department, so having a champion, then also having folks, everyone, understand the value of the program, the value of collecting data, the value of accurate data, and then wrapping that up and making sure that those reports are submitted as timely and as accurately as possible. Part of it, we all think that once that incident report is filed, that it’s final, that you can’t do anything to it, so part of that education is making folks aware, just like we’re doing in our conversation today, that you can go back in and alter those incident reports and that that’s where that investigator can go in and change the codes if they’ve determined a different cause or origin, then that’s absolutely fine. Go in and make it - make those changes so that what we submit is accurate.
ROD AMMON: That’s an excellent point. I think a lot of times with software or you used to hear it with digital photography, once I lay it down I can’t touch it, and in a reporting system, it’s obviously a very different thing. The idea is you’re adding data. You’re making it better, so glad you said something about that. I’m also thinking about what I’ve heard over the years and I’m glad you corrected me. It’s NFIRS. With the NFIRS system, about its usability, can you talk a little bit about that?
JIM NARVA: Yeah, it is - having started out as a rank-and-file firefighter and working through the ranks to then the state to where we were... for the state, it does seem overly complex. It doesn’t appear to be user friendly. I think those are all fair and valid concerns. It’s really difficult to pinpoint what data we need to collect because everybody’s got a different idea, and they have a different idea based upon what they need locally, what the state might need, and also what the federal - the national level needs, so there is a need to move forward. This project - it was - one of the recommendations that came out of it is that we need you to look at - very seriously we need to look at version 6.0 for NFIRS. We’ve been on NFIRS 5.0 for well over a decade. I want to say about 15 years. Well, there’s a whole lot of new causes that are out there. Technology has changed. There’s just no way within a system to identify everything that could possibly cause a fire or the origin of it, so that it has to be generalized somehow, so that really - part of it, it’s time to look to move forward and update the NFIRS.
It’s viewed as complex and not user friendly, and it’s also viewed that I just put all this information in and nobody looks at it. Nobody uses it, and so it drops into the black hole so to speak. So we’ve got a lot of education again on that piece, and we’ve been working closely and communicating with the U.S. Fire Administration, who I mentioned addresses this and collects the data, as well as folks from NFPA, the National Fire Protection Association, to address it. They do a great job with data as well at the NFPA, but we all have to get on the same page, decide what these elements are that we want to capture as we move forward, and then make it customizable in some manner so that a local or state jurisdiction has the ability to collect the information that they need, but it also provides the information that the federal government or the state needs.
Not everybody needs the same information, so we need a system that’s got some flexibility and the ability to customize it a bit, and with today’s technology and where we are 15 years later since the last version was released is tremendous, so it’s not something that can’t be done. It just seems to be a lack of will on the part of securing the funding, and we all know the dollars are tight and we have to spend them wisely, but if we’re ever going to get a handle on fire data and the fire problem and an accurate handle on our fire problem, we’re going to have to do something with the data collection system.
ROD AMMON: It’s funny. You know, if you were a private sector business, you wouldn’t move forward without the data, and the reason would be addressing - you’d be addressing the concern that you just brought up. As a taxpayer or as a leader, you wouldn’t want to make decisions without good information. There was one other issue I was thinking about and I was looking over my notes here, talking about protocols and the systems that are out there to improve how people in the fire service use NFIRS relating to quality assurance, quality control. Can you talk a little bit about that?
JIM NARVA: The policy or standard operating procedure that we found that really addressed the issues and one that we believe could be a model for other fire department came from Pennsauken, New Jersey Fire Department. It’s - they’ve got a four-page document, a standard operating procedure, that stood out and it’s really because of its clarity and conciseness. It talks about and addresses all those things that we’ve discussed today, describes why data collection is important, so we’ve addressed the education. It states who has the responsibility to put - input the data into the system. Everybody wants to point a finger at someone else. It’s your job. But it really clarified who that is, whether it’s the firefighter, the company officer, the fire chief, an administrative person, who it is. It explains the basics of writing a report.
It also specifies when those reports must be completed, so you can’t really put them off. You can’t delay them. They need to be done promptly. It emphasizes quality control and accuracy within these incidents and investigative reports. It addresses the procedure for making corrections. So again, back to that point, you can open an incident report and make changes, make corrections, all of those types of things. So it addresses that, and then it also provides some references for additional information, so kind of a six or seven-step process there so that policy or that model guideline is out there for folks to use. Like I mentioned, it’s included in our report so I would encourage anyone that’s interested in the issue of data collection and how it impacts that question of unknowns within fire investigation or the response on our NFIRS report that they look at this report.
It’s really broken into pretty simple and easy-to-understand pieces. Some of those pieces may work within their department. Others may not. Some may already be incorporated into their system, but it’s kind of an overall process of how to gather and collect that data and address this large number of unknowns. Now, there’s always going to be unknown causes of fires. I mean, that goes without saying essentially, but we’ve got to somehow reduce those that are considered unknown for reasons that are out there such as not completing the data, not following it up, the fear of litigation, all of those elements that we’ve discussed. They’re just not good excuses, so finding and addressing those unknown causes and doing it accurately and timely should significantly reduce that and give us a better picture of unknown fires and fire in general within our country.
ROD AMMON: Since your study and report has been issued, what are some of the issues that you identified in the report? What did you decide to do?
JIM NARVA: The piece that we could do from an association perspective is try and get the materials out, get the information out, and educate. Now, we don’t have the ability to compel anyone to do anything. These surely are recommendations that came out of the research, five recommendations. We’ve talked about most of those and trying to spread that word, and then we want to work with the United States Fire Administration to try and improve and come up - develop I guess - NFIRS 6.0, so we have submitted a proposal and are awaiting word on that right now in a federal - the Fire Prevention & Safety Grant Program, which is part of the AFG grant. I think all the firefighters understand that one, that program, very well, but we’re looking at it not to build NFIRS 6.0 but to begin to really define what those elements are.
What are those elements of data that we need to collect and so that we can put this framework together and then go to work? And we have to understand the USFA can’t really go to work to secure the money federally, but they need all of the related organizations to help do that and to kind of carry the water. They can’t go to congress and particularly ask for that money. So we need to work with them to do it, so we’re focused on education, awareness, and then really setting the framework so that we can begin to have a system that collects what we need and what we need individually and at the state and federal level.
ROD AMMON: Okay. You mentioned two things that I want to give people and then I have a question or two more. Your website where there is more of this information, do you want to give us the URL for that? We’ll put it at the end of the podcast.
JIM NARVA: That would be great. It’s www.firemarshals.org/fireincidentdata, and that fire incident data is all one word, and the report - there’s about six or eight different pieces broken out at that website. The one with the full report is called the NASFM Foundation Final Report - Conquering the Unknowns.
ROD AMMON: Okay, and that’s - the general name of the website just in case somebody is one the move here is www.firemarshals.org.
JIM NARVA: That’s correct.
ROD AMMON: Can you talk about, as we wrap up, sort of what’s the role of the individual fire investigator in these solutions? What do you want them to do? What do you think they should be doing?
JIM NARVA: It goes back to one of the earlier things that we talked about, and it’s ensuring - they’ve got an expertise and an experience that exceeds the average line firefighter as it comes to investigating fires, so we think it’s important that that investigator take on that responsibility. They’ve got the credentials. They’ve got the experience to make sure that the fire is not only investigated completely and accurately, but that the incident report is updated. To assume that just to attach their report is going to get it into the system is inaccurate, so having them kind of take on that responsibility to make sure that the incident report is updated is one of the largest pieces. I think understanding also the value of the data is - they know that if they can’t identify the fire cause and origin, then we really don’t know the problems, but they can be part of that champion for data collection by being the champion to make sure that those reports are completed and submitted.
ROD AMMON: And updating those codes is part of that initiative you spoke of closing the loop.
JIM NARVA: Absolutely. Updating the codes, and that’s what I mean. Just make sure it’s complete and that their findings, their investigative results are part of that incident report, so they update the codes. If the cause is found to be something different after investigation, then update it. That’s a big piece.
ROD AMMON: So I guess I just want to say thank you. This is a critical issue for fire investigators and the fire service, and frankly, a lot of taxpayers and anybody who’s trying to figure out how to better deal with the problem of fire. And when you talk about just one or two simple takeaways, just going in there and keeping that report alive, updating the codes and moving forward. Anything else you want to add before we say goodbye?
JIM NARVA: No, I think we covered it - covered it well, and it really is - while it’s a long report and it was a year-long effort to research it, they’re pretty simple findings that I think people understand and can grasp easily and can make changes within their department or within the investigative world to ensure that they happen. They’re pretty simple. Close the loop. Let’s clear up this litigation cloud. We need to educate everybody from the rank and file on up, so there are some pretty simple recommendations that we hope are useful and can really move the needle forward as we progress so that when we do get a new data collection system in this country for fire incident reporting, that we’re - we’ve done the education side of... and making that all come together at the right time and we can really make a difference and begin to better understand that the fire problem is in our country.
ROD AMMON: Well, thank you very much, Director Narva. I’m very grateful for your time. I know everybody at the IAAI and those who check in with us here at CFITrainer.Net are grateful for your contribution and time.
JIM NARVA: Thank you for the opportunity and for the interest in it. We hope that - hope you’ll go out and look at the report and implement what fits for their community with the common goal of better and more accurate information, investigative information, to help us begin to get our minds around what the real problem is, so thank you for the opportunity.
ROD AMMON: That concludes this podcast. Stay safe and we’ll see you next time on CFITrainer.Net. For the IAAI and CFITrainer.Net, I’m Rod Ammon.
Conquering the "Unknowns": Research and Recommendations on the Chronic Problem of Undetermined and Missing Data in the Causal Factors Sections of the National Fire Incident Reporting System. National Association of State Fire Marshals Research & Education Foundation. 2014.
Why Data? Understanding Your Role in Fire Incident Data. The National Association of State Fire Marshals. Online Training.
Library of Policies and Guidelines on Fire Incident Data Collection. The National Association of State Fire Marshals.