March 07, 2017

Drexel researchers: Data management can save fire departments money on injuries

For the second day in a row, the Philadelphia Fire Department has its hands full.

A four-alarm fire Monday morning at the Aquatic & Fitness Facility in Northeast Philadelphia was followed on Tuesday by another massive blaze at a PECO substation in the Tioga section of North Philadelphia.

In one of the most dangerous professions in the world, injuries are a part of the job of fighting fires. Placed under incredible pressure and racing against time, firefighters face a heightened risk of various injuries for which their departments and municipalities are ultimately responsible to cover a large portion of the treatment costs.

According to researchers at Drexel University's Dornsife School of Public Health, fire departments potentially could save thousands of dollars by improving their data management on injury cases.

The university's Firefighter Injury Research & Safety Trends program analyzed four different databases used to record injuries within the Philadelphia Fire Department. By combining this data, the research team found that accurately coding injuries could have saved the department as much as $1 million in workers' compensation costs for some injuries.

“It is very important for fire departments to understand causes and cost of injury in order to ensure their limited budget is being properly distributed,” said Shannon Widman, project manager at FIRST. “If departments can accurately pinpoint specific injuries that lead to specific costs, they are empowered to prioritize decisions when considering prevention.”

A review of the Philadelphia Fire Department's human resource records, dispatch data, workers' comp costs and initial injury reports found that the most costly injuries to firefighters were burns, strains and falls. Data from three of the databases found workers' compensation from burns and strains were undervalued by $750,000 and $1 million, respectively.

“Most fire departments collect data on a regular basis, but lack resources to analyze them,” Drexel associate professor Jennifer Taylor said. “Work like this is very resource-intensive and requires specialized skills, so we need to find continuing resources to building these data architectures.”

Combined data systems developed by FIRST will soon be available not just to the Philadelphia Fire Department, but other departments around the county. The goal for further research is to identify where and when certain injury types occur, what level of experience the injured firefighters have and how to prioritize prevention efforts to minimize costs.

The study, published in "Injury Prevention," can be accessed here.