Author(s): Birgitte Messerschmidt. Published on November 1, 2020.

Data United

NFPA participates in an ambitious new effort to standardize the collection and interpretation of fire data from around the world


As much as safety professionals wish that every life safety problem could be addressed and our proposed solutions fully funded, the reality is that no country has the resources to tackle every issue. Even in the best cases, investment in fire and life safety comes down to a cost/benefit analysis: How we can we get the best bang for our safety buck?

In a perfect world, the answers to that important question would be largely based on quality fire data, which provides valuable insight into safety gaps and a range of potential solutions. Unfortunately, that world is a dream, not a reality.

In many places around the world, basic fire data—such as the number of fires by property type in a region or the leading causes of home fires—either doesn’t exist or isn’t reliable. In cases where decent fire data does exist, differences in the data collection methods and how the data is defined—such as what counts as a fire and a fire death and what doesn’t—can make it difficult to draw meaningful conclusions across borders. If we cannot compare one country’s fire problems with another’s, it’s impossible to know which policies and codes are working and how they might translate to another jurisdiction.

Fixing this fire data problem will be a herculean task, but we recently took an exciting first step. This summer, European Parliament set aside the equivalent of about $745,000 to fund a project aiming to harmonize the fire data collection methods and terminology between the 27 European Union member nations. This will entail identifying the fire data collection methods and terminology used within each EU country, as well as in the U.S., Canada, Norway, and Australia, and then proposing a common data methodology for the entire EU going forward. The project is being undertaken by a consortium of universities and organizations around the world, including NFPA, and is expected to be completed by the end of 2021.

Harmonizing how fire data is collected and interpreted across the EU will lead to several important outcomes. For instance, for the first time, it will be possible for each of the EU member states to accurately benchmark their data against other EU countries, information that can help guide and improve local safety policies. The new harmonized data can also help identify what fire and life safety problems are common across Europe, giving the EU Parliament a more comprehensive view and informing the EU-level policies necessary to address these shared safety concerns. Lastly, by undertaking this project, researchers will gain access to a treasure trove of data about various fire prevention approaches being undertaken throughout the various EU member states. This will give officials across borders insight into what’s working and possibly help them find solutions to pesky problems in their own jurisdictions.

While the project’s focus is on the EU, the audit of data collection practices and terminology will undoubtedly lead to many important insights and best practices that can benefit countries around the world—especially those with limited fire data or no system for data collection at all. This will be a hugely valuable starting point for NFPA’s ongoing efforts to help countries around the world set up their own fire data collection systems.

Further, if the data definitions and methodologies developed by this study become widely adopted across the globe, the number of places that speak the same data language would grow exponentially, as would the benefits for researchers and policymakers. Not only would applicable fire and life safety data be readily available, but important policy decisions would be supported by a world’s worth of experience. Finally, we could operate with the assurance that we were spending our limited safety dollars in the most effective ways possible.

Birgitte Messerschmidt is the director of applied research at NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler