Data collection, NFIRS, and peer review

I had an interesting conversation the other day with a friend who spent a couple of years as a casual volunteer firefighter. He knows just enough to identify some issues and needs but not enough to be really well versed in their finer points. The topic turned to the (mostly settled) bunker gear vs. turnout coat/hip boots issue. I’ve heard, anecdotally, that Boston reported a lower injury rate among crews using turnouts/hip boots, but am unaware of any actual study. My friend asked me what the data say about victim survival rates compared to fire stage and firefighter access (i.e., how deep did they get in there?). I had no answer.

This points up what I believe to be a major failure of the fire service and a stumbling block to ours ever being considered a true profession. Dr. Robert Cherry of Penn State’s homeland security grad program teaches that for a field to evolve into a true profession it must have, among other things, peer-reviewed journals. The fire service certainly has some solid trade journals (Fire Engineering, Firehouse, and Fire-Rescue all spring to mind) but no real peer-reviewed journals that are known and distributed nationally. There are some cursory efforts, including from the old West Point of the Fire Service, Oklahoma State University, but have you ever seen a copy? I sure haven’t and don’t know of anyone who even knows of its existence.

Not only do we lack a sober and earnest collective research discipline, we also lack adequate data collection. Part of that is explainable by the fluidity of the fire scene; how do you even begin to design uniform criteria identifying how deep you went or were able to go or where the victim has crossed the threshold into unsurvivable? NFIRS collects some solid and useful data, but mostly it is useful for prevention and construction efforts. It doesn’t really tell us anything about staffing levels or equipment performance/ability. Even if we can’t gather this information through NFIRS or some other standardized system we could still encourage solid research and analysis. I am of the opinion that the trade journals we do have are too focused on the task level of our job and not enough on the strategic or technical preparation side. For that sort of discussion you have to go to various blogs and some of the reasonable message boards. But those aren’t popular enough and many fire departments are run by chiefs who are scared of the internet, sometimes to the point of having valuable training tools (YouTube!) blocked completely.

How do we have rational and objective discussions about realities, hypotheses, theories, and projections for the future? The answer is that we cannot, we have to make do with arguments from tradition and policy made by anecdote. On some points the sort of solid foundationI’m talking about does exist, but that is rare. The fire service has to evolve to hold place in this information-based world. The Heritage Foundation just slammed the federal grants that are so vital to many departments. The Heritage Foundation is just another mission-oriented think tank, but we lack even that and can’t make a counterargument with so much as a bagged study like this.

Read, read, read and explore the blogs, they are our internal evangelists.

*Originally published in 2009 on my first attempt at blogging

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