(Photo by Donna Kallner)

Ever try to get the highway department to straighten a bad curve or put flashers at an intersection? They’re going to want data on motor vehicle accidents at those locations. Think your homeowners insurance premium should be reduced? That’s based on data about your area’s 911 system, your fire department’s readiness, and the availability of water to fight a fire. Data influences the allocation of scarce resources. The squeaky wheel may get some grease, but people holding pursestrings love clear, concise abstracts of data analysis – preferably with pie charts. When you pull back the curtain on how data is collected in rural areas, though, there’s room for improvement. 

People not directly involved in the rural fire service, emergency medical services, emergency management, and local government might assume everything is fine with our bean-counting and number-crunching. And it might be. But keep in mind that many of the people providing emergency services in rural areas, and therefore tasked with data collection, are unpaid volunteers. 

Those volunteers work extra hours staging fundraisers to finance equipment and training and keeping second-hand fire trucks running. An urban fire chief can be reasonably expected to perform regular analysis of incident data to guide grant applications, budget proposals, and even operational decisions. A rural fire chief may have to fit that in around a day job as well as calls, training, and tasks that can’t be delegated because volunteers are so scarce. Ask a rural fire chief to estimate how many tenders are needed to supply water for a structure fire where there are no hydrants and the water supply shuttle is a five mile round trip: They can do that kind of math in their heads. But budgeting for operations, equipment replacement, facility improvements, and other short- and long-term expenses is tough when you don’t know how much you’ll have to work with until after proceeds are counted from fundraising and grants.

Paid counterparts also struggle with this numbers game. Rural areas are losing paramedics, EMTs, and firefighters to better-paying departments in other areas. Replacements are hard to find when some fast food jobs pay as much as a position in public safety. 

The system is stretched nearly to the breaking point. And that’s with 82% of the nation’s 29,452 fire departments relying on an all- or mostly-volunteer workforce. The estimated value of that donated time is 46.9 billion dollars. Taxpayers are getting a heck of a deal. But volunteer doesn’t mean free. 

It’s not unreasonable, when public safety agencies ask for funding, for our communities to expect emergency services agencies (volunteer or otherwise) to present data in support of those requests. But collecting, analyzing, and presenting that data is not a simple matter. 

Rural volunteer fire departments are the red-headed stepchildren of emergency incident data. Or at least it feels that way in the current system of data collection: The National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) is the world’s largest collection of fire incident data. It’s also notorious for incident codes, fields, and a structure more reflective of urban environments than rural ones. For example, it’s easy to record a Hazardous Materials Release from a propane gas tank “<21-lb tank (as in home BBQ grill)” but not from the 500-gallon liquid propane tanks commonly used for rural home heating. While you’re searching for a code (required to advance within the report), you’re apt to time out on a slow rural broadband connection. Documenting  Property Use types is easy for churches, schools, medical facilities, correctional facilities, and more, but the only agricultural option is “Livestock/Poultry storage with the notation “(barn)”. Is that supposed to include silos, grain bins, and hay sheds? 

When the NFIRS platform was conceived in the 1970s, it didn’t even include Emergency Medical Services. EMS was added in a later update. But it’s all operating on a 20-year-old system that really needs to be rebuilt to reflect not only advances in technology but also changes in what emergency services now do.

In May, the U.S. Fire Administration announced it is developing a new emergency incident reporting system. Over the next three years, NFIRS will be replaced with a new platform – the National Emergency Response Information System (NERIS). The new cloud-based system promises “near real-time information and analytic tools that support data informed decision-making.” I’m sure there are data scientists and insurance underwriters popping corks to celebrate this development. I might be, too, if I could picture how the promised “substantial computing power” will minimize the burden for data contributors in rural areas. I’m all for auto-filling reports with information from computer-aided dispatch systems. But how would “physical and field sensors, e.g., internet of things (IoT)” work in cell signal dead zones? Adding biometric interfaces to track the movements and condition of personnel might make sense, but how does that work where cell data and WiFi don’t reach?

The NERIS platform is being developed with a mobile-first approach intended to simplify incident data entry and ensure compatibility on mobile devices, as well as other hardware such as computers and tablets. Theoretically, this approach is supposed to let fire departments with minimal technology capabilities and less staff time submit data “more easily”.

My fire department and others in this area still do reports on paper and someone else (often another volunteer) inputs the data later. We do not have Mobile Data Terminals (MDTs) in our apparatus. Would we like to have them? Yes. But I’m not sure where we would put them in apparatus bought second-hand from larger, urban departments so they have room for MDTs. And I’m not sure how we would pay for them. Or even for just one. And for the monthly bill for cell data service needed to make it work with a cloud-based network. And for WiFi to make sure security and other updates are installed regularly.

Some rural departments don’t even input data from paper run sheets into NFIRS. Our’s does, but only because it’s a requirement of the Wisconsin 2% Fire Dues Payments Program. Insurance carriers in Wisconsin pay the state a portion of the premiums they collect on fire-related insurance policies. Those funds are distributed to fire departments in compliance with the requirement to keep records and submit reports via NFIRS. Compliance is audited. We can’t afford to lose our 2% dues, so a volunteer inputs data from handwritten run sheets. If my husband’s handwriting is even slightly representative of what volunteers face when inputting handwritten data, those volunteers deserve accolades and generous donations to help fund MDTs and apparatus with room for them.

There’s another cost when agencies don’t contribute to a nationwide database like NFIRS and eventually NERIS. NFIRS is nominally a voluntary tool that standardizes reporting so analysts can compare apples to apples. But only about 44% of U.S. fires to which fire departments respond are captured in NFIRS. The rest of the data and conclusions drawn from it are inferred. If we rely on a new set of urban bean counters to infer what incidents look like in rural areas, NERIS could have the same blind spots as NFIRS. 

I’m not asking for a reporting system that includes every rural variable. A lot of those can be addressed in a report’s narrative. But some incident factors have a significant potential impact on funding, and those should be addressed in building NERIS. And the best way to make that happen is by sharing stories about the realities of public safety response in rural areas. We can’t just wait for things to get better.

Structure fires, wildland fires, motor vehicle accidents, hazardous materials incidents, disaster response, and recovery – rural agencies are first on the scene for many of these. Sure, I’d like real-time inter-operable reporting before my community becomes the next Paradise, California or East Palestine, Ohio. And yes, I’m confident that my department could pay for an MDT, although right now I would rather buy one more portable radio for a new volunteer. We could find a place to stow a handheld MDT – portable enough to send to high ground to find a cell signal if enough volunteers respond to a call. If.

I keep reminding myself that data influences the allocation of resources. Rural communities have a big stake in this numbers game, and the clock is ticking. NERIS is being built now. Rollout is planned for next year, and NFIRS should be retired the following year. Change is coming. If you want a say in what that looks like for your rural community, don’t delay. You can email the NERIS Information Desk at NERIS@ul.org.

Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin. She and her husband are members of the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department. 

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.