(from Maine Townsman, April 1997)
By Michael L. Starn
Local fire officials in Maine may soon realize a goal that has been a quarter of a century in the making. Progress toward achieving that goal - to collect and analyze fire incident data in Maine - began in earnest on January 1, 1997.
The Maine Fire Incident Reporting System (MEFIRS) is a project of the Maine Fire Chiefs Association. It is a partnership project with financial support from the State Fire Marshals Office and an administrative contract with a computer software company, Sunpro Inc.
Fire incident reporting in Maine will provide valuable information to local fire officials and other municipal officials to help them improve fire service management in this state. Some of the potential benefits include: getting a better handle on the reliability of safety products in homes; preventing firefighter injuries; pinpointing and reducing false alarms; determining the extent of juvenile fire-setting; tallying arson statistics and preventing this type of crime; providing comparative data for local fire service budgeting; and targeting fire prevention and education programs to specific fire problems.
NATIONAL FIRE INCIDENT REPORTING
In 1973, when Richard Nixon was president, the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control issued a report titled "America Burning".
"America Burning" cited a serious deficiency with data collection in the nations fire service. The outgrowth of the "America Burning" report was the establishment of a national fire incidence reporting system (NFIRS).
NFIRS was set up and administered by the United States Fire Administration (USFA), which was created after the "America Burning" report was issued. USFA was given the directive to develop a national fire incident reporting system that would enable the fire service community, and others, to gain a better understanding of the fire problem in this country. In 1976, NFIRS was up and running.
At its inception, six pilot states were chosen to participate in NFIRS. Their charge was to lead the way in the development of a national fire incident data collection system that would include all 50 states and all municipal fire departments. While not quite reaching this goal, from the initial six states the national system grew to include 40 states and over 13,000 fire departments by the early 1990s. A National Fire Data Center was established as the repository for the data that was collected by the participating states.
MAINE GETS INVOLVED
Maines participation in the NFIRS began in 1978. Federal grant money was tapped and the State Fire Marshals Office and other fire service leaders introduced the concept, procedures and process of documenting fire incidents to local fire departments.
The fire incident reporting and data collection program in Maine had problems from the outset. Being a paper system was one of the bigger problems. Lengthy reports had to be completed and filed with the Fire Marshals Office. A large code book was provided with the reporting forms so that fire officials could fill in the 60 data fields. Small departments, in particular, were overwhelmed by the paperwork and just didnt have the time or energy to continue reporting.
Those fire officials who continued to file reports were disappointed on the other end. The Fire Marshals Office, which was responsible for entering the data and issuing reports on the collected data, couldnt keep up. Forms began to pile up in the Fire Marshals Office and when data reports were issued, they did not contain timely information.
Maines fire incident reporting system languished for several years. At one time, 120 municipal fire departments were participating, but given the problems just mentioned, many fire officials enthusiasm for the program waned.
As participation dropped off and as other issues took precedence, in 1992 the State Fire Marshals Office ceased the fire incident data entry. Unfortunately, the stoppage was not widely publicized and many municipal fire departments continued to fill out and send in their reports.
Not until the new Fire Marshal, Dennis Lundstedt, came on board was there a full recognition of the problem. Lundstedt found piles of un-entered fire incident reports and decided that the problem needed to get resolved.
Following a meeting with Fire Marshal Lundstedt, the Board of Directors of the Maine Fire Chiefs Association formed a NFIRS committee which was directed to investigate the problem and develop solutions. After meeting with the Fire Marshal several times over a two-year period, the committee decided that Maines participation in NFIRS should end.
The NFIRS committee was told by the Fire Marshal that NFIRS could not be a priority for his office. Fire Marshal Lundstedt gave several reasons including: the lack of a legal mandate for his office to provide the service; a lack of support from Maine fire departments; the need for hardware and software upgrades in his office to handle the task; and other, more pressing, demands placed on his office.
Lacking a suitable alternative to the Fire Marshals Office administering the program, the committee recommended to the MFCA Board of Directors that the program be abandoned.
REVIVING FIRE INCIDENT REPORTING
Along comes Michael Sturgeon, assistant fire chief, Old Town.
In the fall of 1994, Assistant Chief Sturgeon, as a member of the Fire Marshals NFIRS Committee, was attending a National Fire Information Council training conference in Seattle, Washington. At that conference, he met a number of fire officials involved in fire incident reporting systems in other states. An important contact Sturgeon made at the conference was with the program manager of the State of Washington fire incident reporting system.
Sturgeon was intrigued by the striking similarities between the Washington experience with fire incident reporting and Maines. Washingtons system once operated under its Fire Marshals Office and then collapsed due to diminishing resources and a change of priorities.
But, the Washington Fire Chiefs Association found an alternative to the Fire Marshals Office. They created a "paperless" system that was managed by their association with data processing and report generation handled by a private fire service software company.
Upon his return from the conference, Sturgeon had renewed enthusiasm for fire incident reporting in Maine. With representatives from Sunpro, Inc. (the Washington State contractor) making a presentation to the MFCA Board of Directors, Sturgeon was able to convince the Maine Fire Chiefs Association to take the lead in reviving Maines fire incident reporting system.
The first thing MFCA did was to lay out some issues and concepts for a Maine fire incident reporting system, if it were to be revived. Those issues/concepts included:
Designing a system that put the information needs of the local fire departments first, followed by the needs of the State Fire Marshals Office and the U.S. Fire Administration.
Having the Maine Fire Chiefs Association direct the program. It was also determined that Assistant Chief Sturgeon should be the Program Manager.
Forming a users group for the MEFIRS (the new name for the Maine Fire Incident Reporting System).
Securing financial support from the State Fire Marshals Office and local fire departments.
Exploring the availability of private sector data processing contractors to run the system.
Excouraging the electronic reporting of the fire incident data.
Supporting an aggressive training program within the fire service on the importance and value of MEFIRS.
MFCA solicited and received proposals on providing data processing support for MEFIRS. Sunpro, Inc. was selected from three competing proposals.
Sunpro had over 10 years experience in the fire service software industry and carried an excellent reputation for the work they had done in Washington State. Their proposal included free data entry software to all participating departments, or allowed departments currently using another brand of NFIC (National Fire Information Council) software to continue using it. The cost was $22,500 per year.
THE FUTURE OF MEFIRS
Assistant Chief Sturgeon received his first quarterly report in early April from local fire departments detailing the first three months of the revived Maine Fire Incident Reporting System.
At the present time, MEFIRS Program Manager Sturgeon says there are 123 departments registered in the system, but he doesnt know how many fire departments are actually using the program. It will be some time, he says, before many small department have incidents to report.
Nonetheless, Sturgeon is optimistic about MEFIRSs future. He hopes to get telecommunications of data within the next three months (the program currently accepts only computer disks). Eventually, he hopes to have Internet access to the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) data base. Allowing fire department officials to do their own queries on the national data base would go a long way towards encouraging their participation at the state level, says Sturgeon.
"The support of Fire Marshal Ladd Alcott has been a key to the successful start up of MEFIRS," says Sturgeon.
As for future funding, the Fire Marshals Office is committed to three years, according to Sturgeon. He believes that with a successful project their support will continue beyond that time period. He also has ideas for selling some of the data and reports to private companies, such as insurance companies and fire service equipment dealers, to generate additional revenues to support the program.