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Fighting Fire with Data

With more than 300 years of experience, the Boston Fire Department continues to find new ways to improve fire safety.

When it comes to civic history, it’s hard to beat the city of Boston. It’s the home of America’s first public park, first public school, first college and first post office. It’s also where fire safety got its start. In 1631, Boston passed the first fire prevention ordinance, banning thatched roofs and wooden chimneys. Fire suppression followed next when, in 1653, the young city contracted with Joseph Jynks to build a fire engine. By 1678, Boston had its own fire department.

Since then, Boston has had plenty of practice at fire prevention and suppression, and while the days of “firsts” might be over, the Boston Fire Department (BFD) continues to develop new firefighting strategies in a city where many streets still follow the same paths laid down by its Puritan founders. The proof of BFD’s ongoing progress lies in how it has embraced data and analytics to manage its operations while continuing to prevent and fight fires.

Overall, the city has a well-earned reputation for using data analytics that can be traced back to the mid-1990s, when Boston began collecting data on outputs and outcomes to support its budgeting process. Later, it established the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics primarily to take on innovation and civic engagement, but with data as the underpinning driver of the kinds of projects it nurtured. Data analytics has received a big boost from Mayor Marty Walsh, who established the Citywide Analytics Team, which has formalized its use and built relationships with various city departments.

BFD has come to represent one of the city’s success stories in using data to improve operations, according to a report published by the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Because of its reliance on manual and paper-based processes, BFD realized it had significant opportunities to use data to improve decision-making.

But BFD’s willingness to embrace data and analytics also stemmed from leadership, according to Steve Poftak, author of the 2016 report, City Hall’s Technology Journey, and executive director of the Institute. “Commissioner Joseph Finn has been very open to using technology,” he said. Finn was appointed fire commissioner by Mayor Walsh in 2014 and was enthusiastic about partnering with the mayor’s analytics team to develop innovative, data-driven projects.

“We have a fire commissioner who is very big on using data analytics,” said Connie Wong, BFD’s deputy commissioner for labor relations, human resources and legal affairs. The commissioner’s push to use data analytics comes at the right time for the department, according to Wong. “BFD has historically accumulated a lot of data, and it just sits. It would be a shame not to compile that data in a usable and shareable format to drive the department’s operations and make us more efficient in the field and administratively.”

As the founders of Boston realized when they banned thatched roofs and wooden chimneys, prevention is key to reducing the possibility of fires that can destroy property and take lives. In 2015, fire prevention took a leap forward when BFD and the Citywide Analytics Team collaborated on the development of the Building Intelligence System, which provides fire dispatchers with information that helps them understand a building’s hazards. Dispatchers need this information so they can inform trucks en route to an incident about the location of standpipes or the condition of a building, whether toxic materials might be stored onsite, or if the floors are in poor condition.

“A lot of incidents happen in unoccupied buildings,” said Wong. Dispatchers need to provide the trucks with as much specific information about a building, and doing that before they arrive helps in a number of ways. “With a fire, every second counts,” she said. “Giving out information to trucks en route can save a lot of time. It also helps with tactical operations in terms of positioning trucks at the right locations during a fire.”

The Building Intelligence System is a dashboard that dispatchers and firefighters can use on their mobile command terminals. It integrates several city data sets, allowing firefighters to view permitting, inspection, code violation and hazard data. The open source system was built in-house using Google Maps and software from Esri, according to Harvard Kennedy School’s Data-Smart City Solutions. In addition to the data sources, the system delivers computer-aided-dispatch-related data, which includes asbestos, biohazards and other information. BFD and the Citywide Analytics Team also created a tool that allows users to quickly see all nearby hazards through satellite imagery and street view images. This tool is now available on mobile devices, such as tablet computers.

Helping firefighters during an emergency is just one use of the data dashboard. Jack Dempsey, BFD’s deputy fire chief and city fire marshal, said the dashboard has become indispensable to the city’s fire prevention efforts. “We use it every day to look at construction site safety, fire alarms, sprinklers, asbestos removal and more.”

Dempsey described Boston as a city undergoing a building boom, which has increased the number of inspections and permits BFD must handle. “In 2015, we issued 2,500 hot work [welding, soldering and other types of fire-producing activity] permits, and in 2018 that number increased to 4,000. For 2019, the projection is 4,500 hot work permits,” he said.

The same is happening with sprinkler permits — 6,500 last year — which has led to interactions with development companies that are in a hurry to know when the permitting will take place. BFD’s response has been to use the dashboard as a customer service tool as well, tracking where the permit request is in the process. “Having that information at our fingertips saves a lot of time,” said Dempsey.

A third use of the dashboard is for analytics. The system gives BFD managers data on the number of fires and medical calls a company in its fire district has responded to in a given time period. That information can help BFD decide whether to make personnel or equipment adjustments, according to Jonathan Manos, a data analyst with BFD. “They can see response time, which allows them to compare metrics and decide whether to adjust staffing or provide more equipment if a certain district is experiencing more incidents,” he said.

Another key area where data has improved how BFD operates is in human resources. The department has had a complex system of tracking daily attendance, which is complicated by the fact that firefighters don’t work a standard 40-hour, five-day-per-week schedule, according to the Rappaport Institute. After reports surfaced in The Boston Globe about problems with scheduling that included a practice known as shift-swapping, which led to misuse of sick time and overtime, Commissioner Finn made reforming the firefighters’ work schedule a top priority when he took over.

That led BFD to work with the city’s analytics team to create FireStat, a set of dashboards that allow human resources staff to quickly view the latest shift schedules. BFD can now identify where improper time-keeping has taken place. By identifying errors more quickly, HR staff can correct the problems and ensure firefighters aren’t working beyond the recommended number of hours. Last year, Data-Smart City Solutions reported BFD was on track to save $1 million in overtime costs thanks to FireStat and its analytics.

Both the attendance tracking tool and the building intelligence dashboards were challenging and laborious to complete, according to Poftak, who studied how they were developed. But there was a rationale behind the approach. “I think, to their credit, the City Analytics Team took a look at the value of the problem in the eyes of BFD’s management, and worked at putting together a solution as opposed to trying to do something that was technically cutting edge, but not actually useful for the managers,” he said, calling both projects good examples of how data analytics, managed by the mayor’s office, can work with client departments to figure out what their problems are and then build an in-house solution to fix it.

Clearly the data-driven tools are having a broad impact on BFD, giving it access to information that had been locked away. “Most of these dashboards didn’t exist a year ago,” said Manos. “They are very new developments, and we had to go and find the data, understand what it means. We’ve been able to compile it and make it accessible in the field and in the fire prevention office. It’s nice now that it’s in the hands of those who need to use it.”

More importantly, the efforts at BFD wouldn’t have happened without the leadership of Commissioner Finn, who recognized that data was key to opening the door to transformation, and then collaborated with the mayor’s office and its Citywide Analytics Team. That kind of collaboration probably wouldn’t have happened a number of years ago.

BFD’s experience also provides a model for how other kinds of nuts-and-bolts city departments can transform. That’s going to be important going forward, according to Poftak. “There’s ongoing pressure to provide stronger performance measurements and outcomes in city government,” he said. “I don’t foresee the pressure to do service delivery better abating. This is one of the ways to deal with that pressure. Doing it wisely and collaboratively, the way the city of Boston and the fire department has, is a smart way to go about it.”

Lauren Harrison is the managing editor for Government Technology magazine. She has a degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and more than 10 years’ experience in book and magazine publishing.