The Devil is in the Data

The City of Shawnee, KS uses data governance to transform their response to fire emergencies and create a safer community.

ARTICLE | Feb 4, 2020
by Sal Scarpa, CFO EFO, Deputy Fire Chief, City of Shawnee, Kansas
Motor Vehicle Accident

 In the world of public safety, anecdotal evidence has historically been referenced as rationale for program implementation, adjustment, or termination. Oftentimes a single event, or series of events, is the catalyst for some action. For example, repeated calls for a fire department response to a specific address for an activated fire alarm (when no fire is found) may result in the business owner being fined until repairs can be made to the system.  Similarly, an emergency response to a unique motor vehicle accident can result in a protocol change or spur additional training. While responses such as these may be appropriate, progressive fire agencies are leveraging data to make programmatic changes to service delivery models.

The Shawnee Fire Department is not much different than most other fire service agencies. Located in the Kansas City metro area, Shawnee Fire provides municipal fire protection to a suburban community of just over 65,000 people covering 42 square miles. Like many communities, the Department provides emergency response services to include response to fires, medical emergencies, hazardous materials incidents, and special operations (technical and water rescue, and wildland response). The seventy-three member department responds to over 6,400 calls for service (2019); is internationally accredited by the Center for Fire Accreditation International; and has an Insurance Services Office (ISO) Class 1 rating.

In 2015, the Department was noticing an increasing number of cooking fires across the city. The discussions within the fire stations were that fire responses were on the increase. Firefighters knew anecdotally that they were experiencing more fires, but most operational crews don’t track specifics on locations or causal factors of ignition. The Fire Marshal’s office, however, was keen to determine what was behind this perceived increase in fires. A deeper dive into the data behind the fire responses revealed some interesting findings. The actual number of fire incidents in the City hadn’t increased, but the number of fires related to cooking had indeed risen significantly. More specifically, the fires seemed to be occurring in multi-family housing units in the eastern end of the city.

The data confirmed what fire personnel intuitively knew was happening, but it also narrowed the scope of the challenge to something that could be combatted with an aggressive public education campaign. Armed with crucial data regarding what the problem was and where it was occurring, the fire prevention division reached out to the apartment complexes to collaboratively address the incidence of fire. Fire prevention personnel provided education to all the apartment managers in the city regarding cooking fires. An informational flyer was created and provided to the apartment managers in two languages. The information was disseminated to residents and within a year the fire department recognized a 25% decrease in cooking fires!

The data analysis spurred an innovative collaboration with apartment managers leading to a decrease in fire incidence, reduction in property loss, and a safer community for residents and responders. These efforts would later be bolstered by promoting enhanced technology developed in gas and smooth top stoves to limit the potential for fire. Beginning April 2019, all electric stoves sold in North America are required to shut down before grease is ignited, or if the pot or pan dries out. These new stoves not only help prevent cooking fires, but concurrently reduce energy consumption. The Fire Department has been asking apartment complexes to begin to replace their older stoves with these newer (safer) ones. We are hopeful to see a continued decrease in fires by using education, engineering, and enforcement.

Innovative opportunities exist all around us. In this instance, data analysis revealed an opportunity to collaborate with community apartment managers to reduce the incidence of fire and enhance public safety in our community. More recently, data analysis has revealed a significant increase in the incidence of injury-accidents within the city. The Department is partnering with the City’s Police Department and local high schools to produce a public service video addressing distracted driving to display at local movie theatres. The high schools have student media groups with equipment and resources to develop a thirty-second video at no cost to the city. By leveraging partnerships in the community, the Fire Department hopes to see a measurable decrease in motor vehicle accidents with injuries in the coming years.

Public safety agencies traditionally are not considered to be terribly innovative. The old motto – ‘a hundred years of tradition unimpeded by progress’ – has long been a moniker that is hard to shed. Yet, progressive agencies can often find innovative opportunities exist right where they are least expected. Oftentimes, data analysis can shed light on opportunities for innovation. Taking advantage of these opportunities can yield significant impacts to public safety.

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