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“Big Data” is everywhere these days. Companies, organizations and public safety agencies are recognizing the benefits of effective data analysis. In the fire service, new technology has made it easier to automatically record an almost overwhelming amount of data—from response times to sensor readings to the most common locations for fires.

Data has the potential to aid fire departments in making important—and even life-saving—decisions in pre-planning, inspections, training, responses and more. But in order to be useful, data must be effectively gathered, analyzed and disseminated. Simply keeping spreadsheets on a drive won’t cut it anymore. Here are some of the ways fire departments are using big data to keep their communities safe:

Teaming up to share data

Though most fire departments keep records of things like fire incidents, emergency response times and building plans, there is a lot more data out there that could be useful for emergency services. Information about construction permitting, neighborhood demographics, crime statistics and many other things can intersect with aspects of fire service and make it easier for fire departments to anticipate call volume at a given time and prepare firefighters to respond to the type of emergencies they are most likely to encounter.

Collecting some of this more extensive information may be as simple as establishing regular communication with other government agencies and safety organizations in the area. Fire departments in bigger cities may even create a shared database where firefighters, city planners and police officers could upload relevant information.

Using data analysis to predict emergencies

Fire departments around the country are using data to predict where fires are most likely to break out in their communities. For example, New York City FD gathered information from five different agencies in the city to create a centralized database of in-depth information on each of the 330,000 structures in the department’s jurisdiction. The department’s software system, called FireCast, analyzes 60 different risk factors to show the buildings that are at the highest risk of fire.

Last year, the City of New Orleans launched an initiative that used data to show which neighborhoods had the most fire fatalities and the least smoke alarms. This allowed the city’s firefighters to take preventative measures by distributing smoke alarms and educating residents on fire safety.

Communicating significant data findings to firefighters

Many fire departments still use paper files or a local computer drive for inspection reports, which means firefighters can only access the reports at their particular station. A centralized, cloud-based document management system is much more effective for making sure firefighters have access to the information they need—whether they’re at the station or responding to a call. Commanders can use software such as PowerDMS to compile and send out reports about the most important data points to keep firefighters informed.

Big data can’t solve every issue, but it can help streamline operations, guide decision-making and help ensure firefighters are prepared to keep their communities—and themselves—safe.

See how Brentwood (TN) Fire Department utilized PowerDMS to reduce training time by 33%