Charlottesville Fire Department Leverages Community Volunteers

Captain Dave Mozee, Chief Baxter, Captain Joe Hughes, and Deputy Chief Emily Pelliccia receiving CFD’s accreditation plaque at the Commission on Fire Accreditation International.

The Charlottesville Fire Department (CFD) is using community volunteers to expand its capabilities and integrate data-driven processes into the core of its operations. Volunteers contribute both time and an expanded range of technical skills allowing CFD to focus on its core mission while also investigating new capabilities, forming unique data collaboratives. The era of regular collaboration with technically skilled community volunteers introduced to CFD by Smart Cville dates back to Civic Innovation Day in June 2018. The efforts of that day have been sustained and expanded to include a long-term fire risk modeling effort with the University of Virginia and continued in-station volunteer support. 

Since 1865, the Charlottesville Fire Department (CFD) has provided “fire protection, emergency response, and fire safety education to the City of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia.” The department strives for excellence and received Commission on Fire Accreditation International (CFAI) accreditation in 2017, making it “one of only 233 CFAI Accredited fire departments in the world and one of only 57 departments in North America to achieve both CFAI Accredited Agency status and an Insurance Services Office (ISO) Class 1 rating.”

Maintaining this high standard of service and community protection requires constant performance monitoring, making CFD a data-driven organization. While firefighters are in the community fighting fires, treating emergency medical patients, and addressing myriad other emergencies, they are constantly collecting data. As an example, the regional 911 computer-aided dispatch records the times of calls for assistance, fire apparatus departure from a station, time to arrive on scene, time on scene, and time that an apparatus returns to service. Comparing these times with standards ensures that CFD can track and meet performance goals. This is but one small example of the extensive data collection that spans all types of incidents, units responding, citizens impacted, and details about the specific nature of incidents and actions taken to respond to them.  

CFD’s Systems Performance Analyst, Lucas Lyons, manages and analyzes all of this data, creating regular reports to identify trends in the community, performance monitoring dashboards, special reports to address community issues, and annual reports for accreditation. Lucas is a jack of all trades, mastering many different software systems. In a larger community, his work might be done by four or five full-time analysts. 

Given a workload that allowed limited time for additional projects, Lucas reached out to Smart Cville to participate in the second annual Civic Innovation Day in 2018.  Civic Innovation Day focuses on local government issues, bringing city and county subject matter experts together with facilitators and interested members of the community. In this case, Lucas was looking for ideas on fire risk modeling, a subject of great interest to CFD. Fire risk modeling requires advanced technical skills in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and integrating potentially hundreds of disparate datasets. He was aware of innovations in fire risk modeling in Pittsburgh and New Orleans and was looking for input from Charlottesville residents.  

Attracting talented residents to collaborate on developing a building-level fire risk assessment model was straightforward, given Smart Cville’s outreach and reputation for facilitating novel partnerships between local government and the tech community.   At the second Civic Innovation Day, more than twenty volunteers from UVA (including professors, staff, and students), Hack Cville, and WillowTree lent their talents to CFD’s project for the day and many of them for weeks after the event. As students returned to UVA in the fall, CFD collaborated with UVA Systems Engineering classes on both the fire risk assessment model and another project throughout the academic year.  Dr. Greg Gerling’s User Design class took on the educational/awareness component of the project in spring 2019 with a challenge to design a platform or application to engage the public around fire risk data specific to their homes and provide information on how to reduce fire risk.    

Benjamin Skinner, former Research Assistant Professor at the Curry School of Education and Civic Innovation Day Project Fellow, continued to meet with CFD’s Lucas Lyons for months after the event to provide technical training and guidance on using Jupyter Notebooks and Python to organize and analyze fire risk data and create a roadmap for CFD to drive the complex model development process moving forward.  

Ahmed Al-Doori, a rising Charlottesville High School junior in the summer of 2018, also worked with Lucas to digitize valuable datasets to the risk modeling effort not available elsewhere in the city’s databases.  Charlottesville firefighters assigned to light duties after medical absences also now regularly work with Lucas to continue the work of digitizing valuable department records such as the presence of fire suppression systems in buildings throughout the city.  

In addition to fire risk modeling, Civic Innovation Day resulted in long-term, regular volunteer support. A retired Smart Cville member works half day a week at the station alongside Lucas. He has analyzed false alarms, assisted in developing hydrant and business safety inspection routes, evaluated performance against standards, created an atlas of populations critical to the fire department, and contributed to the fire risk modeling effort. This work not only supports CFD’s mission, but helps him retain his current technical skills and develop new skills.

CFD’s long-term success with volunteer support is due to the support of senior leadership and the efforts of their subject matter expert, Lucas Lyons. He works with community volunteers to expand the CFD’s data-driven vision to incorporate new technologies and concepts that support our first responders.  Since Civic Innovation Day, Lucas has presented both to a statewide fire service group and city leadership about the positive experience of CFD’s participation in the event and encouraged both audiences to pursue similar opportunities with local tech groups and facilitators like Smart Cville to reap the myriad fruits of embracing tech talent outside of their own organizations.  

Charlottesville Fire Department

Charlottesville Fire Department 2017 Annual Report

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