Know How: Closing the loop on fire and rescue data

by Julian Parsons

Julian Parsons

Julian Parsons of Buckinghamshire Fire & Rescue Service explores how capturing operational data can help fire services adapt to demand in a challenging economic climate

Like all public-sector organisations, fire and rescue services across the UK are under increasing pressure to do more with less. Central government funding has been on a downward trajectory for several years. The ability to bridge the shortfall with funds from the local authority is limited due to the Government’s policy of capping council tax increases. This leaves fire services with difficult choices to make. Do they cut and reduce services, or can they find ways to operate more efficiently?

However, the total number of incidents that fire services need to deal with also seems to be declining. In Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes, the number of incidents per year has fallen by approximately 40 percent over the past nine years. This correlates with the fire service’s shift in emphasis from emergency response to prevention: by giving homeowners and businesses better education about fire safety and proactively fitting smoke detectors, we have made a lot of progress in stopping fires and other incidents before they happen.

As a result, we realised there was an opportunity to look at how we manage our resources, especially around emergency response. We did a full analysis as part of our current Public Safety Plan in 2014, and it really opened our eyes to the power of data. We were able to create demand profiles that showed how 99 percent of our demand could be catered by just 12 fire engines. So instead of keeping 30 engines and crews available 24/7, we can keep 15 in constant operation, and keep additional staff and resources on call in case a major emergency requires a larger response.

This insight has enabled us to take advantage of staff retirements to reduce numbers by 22 percent in five years – allowing us to balance our books without any need to make firefighters redundant, take fire engines out of operation, or close any fire stations. Meanwhile, by using our staff more flexibly and in a more focused way, fire engine availability has risen, attendance times have improved, and we’ve maintained a 100 percent positive satisfaction rating in resident surveys. And we have the lowest council tax spend of any Combined Fire Authority in the country.

To maintain and improve these excellent results, we want to get even smarter about how we use data to enhance prevention and further reduce the demand for emergency response.

For example, we have seen a clear correlation between accidental dwelling fires, areas of social deprivation and the ageing population, but what are the specific causes of this? How significant are factors such as the age of the inhabitants, or their habits with smoking, alcohol, medication or drug use? If we can understand why these fires happen, we can tailor our education campaigns to help people mitigate the risks.

One key tool in this effort is mobile data collection. In the past, our fire commanders didn’t have an easy way to capture data at the scene of an incident, and it could be hours or even days before they were able to complete their complicated incident reports at the station. The delay made it difficult for them to remember all the details that we ask them to track. And without detailed, accurate data on every incident, it was difficult to be 100 percent confident in the results of our analyses.

That’s why we’ve been working with AMT-Sybex to introduce a mobile data capture solution. Now, our commanders are equipped with a smartphone app that takes them through all the information we want them to capture step-by-step. The system uses intelligent rules to minimise the number of questions they need to answer, suggests appropriate answers, and checks their input to make sure it is valid and complete.

The mobile solution will help us close the loop, and build up a huge body of incident data with unprecedented levels of detail, accuracy and timeliness. With this data, we will be able to support deeper analysis and smarter decision-making in all areas of our operations.

The solution also puts us in a strong position to meet the increasing data requirements of external partners such as the Home Office. As the open data movement gains momentum in central government, fire and rescue services may need to be able to provide greater transparency and deliver information faster. Sites like www.police.uk already offer open APIs, free data-sets, and apps that can monitor crime and police resources nationwide; we are expecting and welcoming the prospect of fire and rescue services being expected to follow suit in the next few years.

In conclusion, the key to providing flexible and cost effective services is by managing demand. Demand can only be controlled through high quality data. In our view, Fire Authorities should be looking for new ways to acquire, validate and analyse data – better, faster, and in greater detail than ever before. Mobile data capture solutions can be a key component of that effort, and technology partners such as AMT-Sybex can be valuable allies – advising on best practices developed in other industry sectors to help fire and rescue services reach the next stage in our evolution.

 
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