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Big Data for Firefighting: 4 Real-World Benefits

ESO Staff

You may hear the term “Big Data” thrown around quite a bit these days, in a wide range of applications, from high-tech industries to consumer applications like smart phones, fitness watches, and smart home controls. Huge amounts of digital information that were once only available to mathematicians, computer scientists, and engineers are today available at our fingertips, waiting to be used to improve efficiency and safety. But how exactly can Big Data help in the world of fire fighting? 

Simply put, “Big Data” is extremely large data sets that can reveal patterns, trends, and associations. However, the term Big Data also references the fact that traditional data-processing applications are often inadequate to handle the amount of information available. Today, emerging tools are increasingly available to take the “data deluge” and make it something that can be handled efficiently, whittling down the available data into chunks of actionable information that is practical in the real world. 

Using Big Data and its related tools efficiently can result in numerous improvements and benefits to firefighters in our data-rich world, primarily in the arenas of optimized communications and increased preparedness. For example: 

  1. More Efficient Communication with Other Municipalities

Any firefighter will tell you that the better your situational awareness going into a call, the better your chances of a positive outcome. Every advantage you can leverage when facing an emergency is valuable, from a better understanding of the history of a location or property, to the evolving factors of the specific present call. The more you know, the better decisions you can make. 

For example, when responding to a fire at a property, it might be helpful to know: 

  • If it is occupied and if so, by whom (a business versus citizens, etc.) 
  • If it has a history of code violations and what they are 
  • If it is currently undergoing construction or has recently 
  • If it has potentially dangerous chemicals onsite 
  • If it has a history of specific fire-related crimes in the area 
  • If it has recently changed ownership 
  • If it has a history of other fire incidents and what they were 
  • If its closest hydrants have been properly maintained and are in working order 

You may be surprised at the amount of data that is already being recorded and collected by other agencies and departments within your city or municipality. And, as a first responder, a fire department itself also has on-the-ground insights that could benefit other departments, making you a valuable potential partner. By putting some legwork into finding out which departments might have the information you need, and building those relationships, you can create information sharing handshakes that deliver helpful information that better inform your response plans. 

Additionally, new digital property inspection tools help increase the accuracy your pre-planning records, with prompts and digital forms that ensure every member of your team – even the newest rookies – are aware of all the information that needs to be recorded and is recording it in the same way. This improved accuracy and digital records help ensure you are as prepared as possible when responding to a call. 

  1. Improved Resource Allocation

Whether you are completing a required audit, reporting to another agency or the public on the current state of your department, or simply wanting an internal view of where new funds need to be spent, an accurate picture of your station’s vital statistics is an important resource to have. Thanks to Big Data and the increase in digital records, it is easier today than it’s ever been to create this view and pull informative, accurate stats. 

Gone are the days of delving through piles of paper records and painfully crunching numbers by hand; instead today’s software tools can make it easy to augment and cross-compare a long list of variables that help you identify areas for efficiency improvements, staffing needs, or new trends in your responses. From automatically tracking your employee training, to reviewing interactions with other agencies like hospitals, Big Data offers fact-based information that helps you make better decisions in both the short- and long-term. 

  1. Better Performance Metrics

Historically, the most basic performance standard for fire departments was response time. Unfortunately, that data was often questionable at best, based on stopwatches and disregarding variables like traffic patterns and other elements out of the department’s control. Today, however, digital data can offer more accurate insights into important quality measures in a fire department, with information that can be sorted and dissected easily to identify true successes as well as areas for improvement. 

New software tools also allow first responders to evaluate interactions with other organizations, helping improve handshakes and handoffs. For example, bi-directional data sharing software lets hospitals share back anonymized patient records with EMS agencies, allowing them to review recent cases, and see what is and is not working well. The result is better outcomes for patients and more efficient workflows between separate entities. 

  1. More Efficient and Safer Workon theFirefield 

Fire departments everywhere are beginning to embrace new technologies that are improving safety for team members on the fire field. By now, you’ve probably heard the term “Smart Firefighting,” and perhaps have even seen or used some of the newest tools that are improving safety and effectiveness.  

For example, new “smarter” PPE can offer command a real-time read of health stats of team members, from heart rate to blood pressure, as well as GPS location on scene. New PPE clothing can include lightweight sensors that track a wide range of environmental factors, including chemical exposure. Smarter fire trucks report in real-time on available water pressure and diesel levels. Smart ambulances are outfitted with digital systems that make it easy to create accurate electronic patient care records (ePCRs) that can be easily handed off at the hospital, saving time and allowing team members to get back to their bus more quickly. 

The world of Big Data promises real opportunities for improvements in safety, efficiencies, and outcomes for local communities. As new tools emerge and fire stations begin to wrap their arms around what information is most helpful to move the industry forward, the possibilities are almost as limitless as the amount of data itself. It will be undoubtedly exciting to imagine where data-driven firefighting will be in the near and distant future.

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