Sharing Best Practices in Business Intelligence from the
Virginia Beach, VA Fire Department
By Dr. Evgeniy Ivanov
It has become universally acknowledged that data is of primary importance for making informed decisions. You can hear about data-driven culture or data-informed decision making in almost any organization or department, big or small. Nowadays, there is a new term being used to comprehensively capture all aspects of exploring data in a smart way — it is called Business Intelligence (BI).
The Fifth Goal
Whether your organization is handling data and analytics in an intelligent or archaic way will determine how successful it is in achieving its strategic goals and in keeping up with the front runners in the industry. During its strategic business plan review in 2020, the Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department (VBFD) recognized the importance of BI and added a new strategic goal—the fifth goal–that seeks to “Enhance Business Intelligence (BI) and Information Technology (IT) capabilities.” That new goal, among other things, is a reflection of the raised level of ambition for the department to become “internationally recognized as a leader in fire service excellence with the ability to predict emerging and challenging environments, develop our members, and cultivate the community sense of feeling safe any place, any time,” as stated in the new vision statement.
The portion of goal five that addresses an enhanced BI capability seeks that development through three objectives:
Objective 1: Develop BI capability that provides reporting and dashboarding of metrics required for key business needs and accreditation.
Objective 2: Develop BI capability that provides key statistical data to the public through Open Data.
Objective 3: Develop BI capability that provides self-service to BI reports, dashboards, and automated exports.
Does your department have a “fifth goal” in its strategic plan?
What Is Business Intelligence?
There are different approaches when it comes to defining business intelligence. Foley & Guillemette observed that “researchers in the field have defined BI using many different definitions, each one with a particular orientation that best suited their particular study.” Some definitions approach BI as the tools, others refer to it as a system or a process. The common ground for all definitions is that BI, in general terms, is about the ability to query and collect data from multiple sources, prepare it for analysis, and present it in the form of reports and dashboards. That is why I would rather define it as a capability, first and foremost: a capability for gathering and analyzing data aimed at delivering business information to support informed decision making.
Furthermore, BI is not only a capability but even more—it is a cross-cutting one, which makes it of critical importance to your department’s functioning and success. First, data does not exist on its own; it is always about something. For a fire department, internal data covers all the functional areas and their capabilities to serve internally and externally, such as human resources, fire operations, inspections, safety, finance, and so on. Second, a fully developed BI capability will help your department explore all these data in a structured way. Thus, it will empower all the program managers who oversee those functional areas and capabilities to make informed decisions on how to sustain success and even improve processes further. BI products, such as dashboards and reports, are easy and quick to explore by end-users through their “self-service” functionality.
The Three Elements of a BI Capability
A BI capability consists of 3 core elements: the BI tools and applications; the BI training on how to use those tools; and the analyst who operationalizes the power of the former two elements into tangible BI solutions and outputs such as workflows, dashboards, and reports. As a unique capability, BI requires its own specific knowledge, tools, and even the analytical skills on how to bring it all to work together. In the case of VBFD, that capability predominantly resides within the Research & Analysis Bureau. It is currently staffed with two civilian analyst positions–a research manager and a fire RMS database administrator–with a battalion chief (BC) overseeing the bureau and bringing fire service field expertise. It is worth noting that despite the fact that the staffing of the analytical and reporting capability will differ from one department to another, there is no doubt that its existence is essential, in one form or another, to ensure a data-driven culture and evidence-based decision making.
Three Examples of BI Solutions
Here are three examples of BI solutions that optimized business processes and justified the efforts toward achieving the objectives under Goal 5, as listed above.
Example 1: Tracking Unfinished NFIRS Reports. In our example, a BC wants to know how many unfinished National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) basic and assist reports there are in the Fire Records Management System (RMS) from all the units and stations under their supervision. Normally, the public safety analyst will process that request and will give the information to the BC. In such a case, that data will benefit only one person—the BC. With the new approach of sharing virtual works spaces and BI products, if such a request is identified as being able to benefit more people and serve a higher purpose, then it will be scaled up (a technique in project management) and would become a departmental BI project. This is how such a project delivered the VBFD Unfinished Reports Dashboard (Figure 1) and the latter was created to bridge the gap of a missing report queuing functionality in the current departmental RMS and to provide BCs and unit commanders with a tool to track, monitor, and manage the NFIRS reporting. The logic for that dashboard was built through team discussions that defined what constitutes an “Unfinished Report.” In addition, those efforts benefit not only the internal reporting processes but also the quantity and quality of the NFIRS data reported monthly to the state. The dashboard is used also by the Quality Control (QC) working group that scrutinizes the quality of data in the Fire RMS.
Example 2: Fire Inspections Tracking Through a “Self-Service” Dashboard. Everybody knows that fire inspections are critical for the safety of businesses and their customers. But this program is also critical for bringing revenue to the city budget and for funding some of the fire inspector positions. No doubt that running the process of fire inspections tracking in a smart and effective way is a must. This was the requirement from the VBFD Fire Prevention Bureau (FPB). A small working group developed the Fire Inspections Dashboard that has two pages/tabs—one for all the fire inspection records and another for annual inspections only. The dashboard also operationalized a custom requirement—to show if the last annual inspection date (LAID) of a business is older than one year. That would be one way to prioritize businesses for inspection. Another way is by their importance to public safety; the FPB developed a “Use Group Priority” where businesses were identified as having High, Medium, or Low priority. Schools and colleges are examples of a high-use group priority; restaurants and nightclubs, medium; and residential homes, low. Ultimately, the Fire Inspections Dashboard (Figure 2) is an operationalization of the “self-service” paradigm where every fire inspector can create a prioritized inspection list (for the year, the month, etc.); track completed and pending annual inspections as the dashboard refreshes daily; and, above all, pull that dashboard on a tablet or smartphone from anywhere and without further need of a paper report or support staff assistance.
Figure 2. All and Annual Fire Inspections Dashboard
Example 3: Automating the Standard of Cover (SOC) Response Times Calculation. Calculating response times for your Standard of Cover (SOC) document for your accreditation process is a huge effort and time-consuming task. The conventional way of handling your data is to create and run separate queries to determine each response time (Alarm Handling, Turn Out, Travel, Total Response) for all incidents and then for the Effective Response Force concentration (Travel and Total Response). Once the data is extracted, the next task is to calculate the 90th percentile for all those times broken down by calendar year, by SOC category (e.g. Moderate Risk Fire, Special Risk Fires, etc.), by area type (metro, rural), etc. Can you imagine the number of queries and manual manipulations your analyst must perform to fulfill that task?
Well, if you invest some time with your team to come up with querying logics that, later on, your analyst binds together in your business intelligence software, then you will end up with a dashboard that can answer all those questions simultaneously, as shown in Figure 3. In addition, you can set filters for scrubbing outliers, add visuals that show the percent of time you reached your target, and many other custom-built logics that can answer a huge array of questions with a simple click of a mouse.
Figure 3. Standard of Cover (SOC) Response Times—90th Percentile Dashboard
Five Tips for Building Up Your Departmental BI Capability
If your department is still in the beginning of developing a more enhanced BI capability and you are still struggling with where to start, then remember the three core elements of a BI capability—the tools/applications, the BI training, and the BI public safety analyst(s). Start with acquiring those first. Below are some tips that can be used as best practices in this “to-be-transformational” for your department endeavor.
Does your fire department have a public safety analyst? If not, plan for having at least one or more, depending on the size of your department. Analysts will form the core element of your departmental BI capability that will bring together the BI tools, the departmental knowledge, and your innovative and process-improvement ideas. The critical role of analysts for the success of professional fire departments has been recognized by the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE) by launching the Fire Analyst project and requesting the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) “to develop a fire analyst professional qualification (Pro-Qual) standard. Given the complexity of gathering and analyzing data for accreditation and the growing sophistication of technology systems available to fire departments, CPSE believes a Pro-Qual standard for fire analysts is an important next step in the progression of fire departments.”
Being a professional and modern fire department requires efforts not only “on scene” but also behind it, where your departmental knowledge and data reside. Start exploring that knowledge in a smart way using BI and you will be able to see “all at once” what is the current status of your performance and compare it to where you aim to be.
Be proactive and volunteer for initial testing of products and applications. Participate in new testing of BI tools or solutions by offering your fire data. This was how the VBFD developed its first BI Dashboard for presenting calls for service by first-due area and succeeded in becoming the first department in the City of Virginia Beach to embed a BI dashboard onto its publicly accessible Web page.
Use a shared working space. Encourage your department to use shared working spaces (e.g., SharePoint Online) and take advantage of its multiple functionalities. That way, everyone can have quick access from anywhere to vital data, dashboards, and documents. Collaboration is key. You can still control who can see what by managing permissions. In addition, you can create workflows to support specific processes.
Seek counterparts, learn from others, and build your team of champions. You need a team of champions both internally and externally. Internally, no one can do wonders (and be willing to do them) without having the full support of their supervisor and the chain of command. Externally, you need to collaborate with your IT department so that they can trust your analyst and provide the necessary access to databases, BI tools and licenses, and day-to day IT troubleshooting support. In Virginia Beach, we have a small dedicated team of BI system engineers in the IT department who provide support (to include BI training) to other departments. Reach out to your counterparts from other public safety departments; that way, you will learn what software you might need. Also, you might find that you have a lot of common problems and you might get or even share some tips on how to solve them.
The Benefits of a BI Capability
I have limited the BI examples here to three, but the list of process improvements through BI is quite long and is getting even longer as we speak, and so is the list of their benefits.
The utmost benefit, as mentioned above, is that BI, as a cross-cutting capability, can support a better functioning of all the processes in your department. Your departmental senior staff can quote data from the dashboards using their mobile phones during a meeting. Or, your fire safety educator can project those while speaking in a school classroom. The created dashboards can be shared with other departments if there is a need. For example, a dashboard with the GIS locations of fire hydrants can serve both the fire department and the public utilities departments’ needs. Ultimately, BI will help improve your performance in data handling in terms of the following:
- Automating data processing. This will limit the time your employees have to spend querying and reporting data and allow them time to learn new skills or take on new projects.
- Who has access to it and from where.
- How much information you can see at once.
- Whether the end users can interact with the data themselves—the “Self-Service” paradigm–or they need an analyst to create and run a separate report to answer each request for information.
These are just some examples of how your department can benefit from developing an enhanced BI capability. As for VBFD, the initial BI capability has been achieved. Our next milestone is to reach and sustain a full BI capability that helps all VBFD program managers handle data in a smart and an intelligent way.
I wish to thank to District Chief Administration Amy Valdez and Battalion Chief Research and Analysis Jonathan McIvor, both with VBFD, for providing valuable suggestions and comments.
Dr. Evgeniy Ivanov works as a research manager for the Virginia Beach Fire Department. He is a certified PRINCE2 project management practitioner with current research efforts in data analysis, problem solving facilitation, program evaluation and process improvement, concepts, and methods, among others.
 Virginia Beach Fire Department. (June 2020). 2020 – 2025 Strategic Plan.
 Foley, É., & Guillemette, M. G. (2010). What is Business Intelligence? International Journal of Business Intelligence Research (IJBIR), 1(4), 1-28. doi:10.4018/jbir.2010100101.
 Center for Public Safety Excellence, Projects — Fire Analyst, accessed 04 October 2020, <https://cpse.org/projects/fire-analyst/.
 Virginia Beach Fire Department, Calls for Service Dashboard, accessed 01 October 2020,https://www.vbgov.com/government/departments/fire/Pages/Calls-for-Service.aspx.