Ontario begins search for fire-fighting database

In the near future, Ontario’s Office of the Fire Marshal hopes to construct an online database so vast amounts of information on past fires can be shared and analyzed by the province’s 500-plus fire departments.

The

intent of the OFM is to make all incident-related information widely available and universally accessible for all departments, said Carol-Lynn Chambers, operations manager of field fire protection services at the Office of the Fire Marshal. On Tuesday, Chambers addressed an Ottawa conference on using performance measurement to manage enterprise-wide risks.

The universal database will allow a fire chief to access applicable statistics, trends and cross-comparisons. Such information can positively affect decision-making, aid risk-assessments, and bolster business cases for more resources when chiefs go before local councils, said Chambers.

Often, the big challenge is that the province’s fire services are “data rich” and “information poor,” added Chambers. “How we pull that information together and make sense of it to tell the story is really critical. And it’s difficult to do that without contours.

“Having some electronic tool that’s easy to use is really the balancing act because as soon as we move to a technology solution, we need to balance that with ease of use and something that’s going to be friendly to all users.”

Chambers emphasized that the database would need to be Internet-based so all departments, including those in remote northern communities, can easily access it. She added that while statistical charts and graphs could be useful for such an undertaking, a graphic-rich presentation could also slow down the transmission of information to smaller communities that rely on a dial-up modem.

At the same time, the quality of data cannot be compromised, said Chambers, adding this factor will play a large role in which front-end software tool is selected to extract all the data, said Chambers. The OFM has identified a group of potential vendors that specialize in applications capable of extracting data from a legacy system and organizing it in a comprehensive way.

Along with several hundred other jurisdictions in Ontario, Ottawa Fire Services already submits its incident reports to the OFM electronically, which is made possible by Fire Department Management (FDM) software. But in order to do cross-comparisons against other communities, departmental staff must call the OFM, identify the kinds of numbers they need and receive them a few days later, said Bruce Montone, deputy chief Ottawa Fire Services.

“From those figures, we must create our own graphics. Now, under this online system, we’ll be able to go online and (access) the (OFM’s) database in a very secure way. We’ll be able to obtain the statistical information we’re after. So it will speed up the process and make it more efficient.”

Lou Agosta, industry analyst with Forrester Research, said the OFM’s approach is definitely the right one. Taking incident-related figures and using them to measure risks is especially important, he said.

“If you can’t measure it, how can you manage it? This is a principle to be guided by.”

Agosta added that the OFM’s undertaking will likely produce “an important and useful tool that’s not necessarily cheap.” It will also be very complex to set up and maintain, he said. The task could be especially challenging if it means capturing all data from 911 control centres or turning paper-based incident reports into electronic documents.

Chambers said the project will be piloted in select municipalities in early 2004. The office is currently deciding which data measurements or benchmarks to use. It is also studying the related work of other jurisdictions such as Atlanta, Ga., and Essex and Hertfordshire, U.K.

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