Igniting Data-Driven Excellence: Empowering Memphis Fire Department with Dynamic Dashboards
Catalyzing Change: A Blueprint from the Success of Shelby County
Within the Memphis Fire Department, fire prevention stands as a critical pillar, encompassing a hands-on and multifaceted approach to mitigating fire risks and promoting community safety. Unlike many smaller fire jurisdictions that delegate inspections to local fire companies, MFD takes ownership over all fire-related enforcement activities across building, permitting, and related inspections. The Memphis Fire Prevention Office has 27 inspectors, all of whom were once firefighters themselves before ascending to their current roles. This organic growth within the ranks reflects a commitment to nurturing internal talent and aligning the department’s expertise with the unique demands of fire prevention.
Traditionally, MFD inspectors are responsible for managing the entire lifecycle of their inspections, whether that be through to the issuance of a permit or resolving a complaint. Prior to 2018, managing these workflows meant grappling with paper-based processes that spanned the archaic landscape of manual permits and paper checks. Inspections and permits were recorded in a Microsoft Access database, a system that had been in place for over 15 years. This rudimentary approach was starkly at odds with the technological advances of the modern era, earning it the candid description of being “stuck in the stone ages”.
In 2018, James Stinson was promoted to the Memphis Fire Prevention Office after spending 23 years as a Firefighter EMT. At that time, the department was in the middle of their pursuit of an online permitting and inspections tool. Due to the sheer number of records that the department was managing, their database had become overloaded with revisions and back-ups, becoming unreliable for their needs. To solve the issue, MFD received a temporary IT resource with the goal of creating a new digital system using freely available software, however this proved to be a challenge. Realizing they needed a better solution, MFD turned to their colleagues at Shelby County.
The Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development (MSCDPD) had recently moved several of their departments to the Accela Civic Platform – the Building Department, Planning & Zoning, Complaints & Enforcement, and Engineering for the City of Memphis and Shelby County. Each of these departments were utilizing a single Accela implementation, leveraging a specific application (or set of applications) to meet their needs, and sharing processes and data that enabled cross-department workflows. As MFD learned how MSCDPD was using Accela, it became clear that they could benefit from its transformative potential in a similar way.
Taking advantage of the existing platform in place, MFD joined MSCDPD’s Accela implementation and made the decision to leverage the Accela Civic Application for Fire Prevention. The application, built specifically for fire departments, would enable MFD to seamlessly integrate technology into their fire prevention operations, allowing inspectors to access and manage records, streamline the scheduling of their inspections, and track the entire lifecycle of inspections and permits in real time. Given that Accela was already being used across other departments, moving to the Accela Civic Platform meant that MFD would become a part of that ecosystem, be able to leverage shared workflows, and be supported by MSCDPD in their use of the software.
Unleashing Insights: Elevating Fire Prevention with Data-Driven Dashboards
As MFD embarked on their journey with Accela, James, in his new position as Inspector Plans Review, played an instrumental role as an Accela admin. Despite his non-IT background, he went through several implementation and training courses, gathering and providing input from the Plans Reviews team on how the team would like the application to be designed. An important aspect of this was ensuring a seamless transition from their previous paper-based processes in terms of maintaining inspector efficiency and accountability.
These aspects have longtime served as the foundation for the statistics that MFD is asked to produce on a weekly and monthly basis. Prior to Accela, inspection statistics were managed in a designated program. Inspectors were required to go into the program weekly, input the number of inspections they had done and the different types, then submit their numbers to management. This workflow became especially important after COVID-19, when all inspectors became remote, rarely coming into the office. These numbers were being sent to the Fire Chief and the Fire Marshall, being used to make staffing decisions, and submitted for ISO insurance ratings – outcomes that were highly dependent on inspectors being accurate with their counts.
Conscious of the data inspectors were required to submit and aware that Accela included reporting functionality, James started to dig around in Accela Insights, a data visualization tool included with the Accela Civic Platform. He started by duplicating a dashboard that had been created by MSCDPD, using it as a template, and modifying it to fit the needs of the fire department. What transpired from
this initial experimentation was the Fire Inspections Dashboard, which shows all inspections that are being done by MFD organized by inspector, location, and type, all visible in one place. Whereas traditionally this data has flowed across Excel spreadsheets from inspector to manager and manager to Fire Marshall, the Fire Marshall can now access this data directly via the live, interactive dashboard.
After some initial feedback, James continued on to build a second dashboard from scratch, catering to the specific needs of MFD’s management. By integrating a custom field for inspector-initiated inspections, this second dashboard showcases “existing inspections,” a pivotal component in a new departmental initiative to inspect every commercial business in the city within a certain timeframe. With Accela Insight’s automatic field synchronization, end users who are viewing the data can select a date range and/or filter on inspection type without worrying about data integrity. As James attests, “The thing I love about Accela Insights dashboards is that, by default, it automatically drills down to all the fields – anything that you see is reflected everywhere on the dashboard.”
Because Accela Insights is built on Microsoft Power BI, creating a dashboard is as easy as identifying what data needs to be visualized and selecting the appropriate visualization for that data – bar chart, donut chart, table, card, map, and more. Accela Insights presents all of these visualization options, enabling users of any skill level to see which visualization type will best illustrate the data they want to communicate. For MFD, adding maps into their Fire Inspections Dashboard gives management insight not only into how many inspections are being done, but also where inspectors are going. Having this information is extremely valuable for reporting and auditing purposes. And it goes beyond inspections, whereas James has also created similar dashboards for plans reviews.
Charting the Future: Empowering Strategic Decision-Making
The use of Accela Insights has profound implications for the fire department’s decision-making. The dashboards, a powerful combination of technology and insight, have empowered MFD management with direct access to dynamic data, eliminating the need for cumbersome spreadsheet-based reporting. These dashboards hold the potential to replace manual data submission processes as MFD continues its journey to digital transformation. Straightforward visualizations such as lists and charts help to render otherwise complex data comprehensible and actionable. Plus, the inclusion of geospatial data via maps enables insights into inspection patterns and hot spots.
One way this data is being utilized is for ISO insurance ratings. A fire department’s ISO rating is a determination on how well they are able to serve their community. Lower number ratings mean lower insurance rates for residents. Over the past few years, Memphis Fire Department has been working hard to improve their ISO rating, moving from a score of 3 to a score of 1, and a big part of this is the data they report pertaining to the numbers of inspections being done. The dashboards enable the department to report these numbers in an accurate and timely manner, positively impacting the local economy.
Looking to the future, MFD plans to leverage these dashboards internally to guide strategic decisions on resource allocation, staffing decisions, and fee adjustments. For example, based on the high number of building plans reviews that need to be done, should another plans reviewer be trained on building plans? Or, looking at the inspections map, should another inspector be added to an area that represents a hot spot of permit-related inspections? Can the department justify an increase in their fees based on the numbers and types of permits they are issuing? The data provides insight to address these internal questions, and many more. Furthermore, the dashboards will be used outside of the department as the data continues to be utilized for ISO ratings and shared with external organizations for grant funding opportunities.
As the fire prevention landscape continues to dynamically evolve, these dashboards will play a pivotal role in ensuring that MFD can adapt and thrive. The ability to identify trends, hot spots, and emerging areas of concern positions the department to be able to proactively respond to the challenges and opportunities ahead. As Memphis Fire Department embraces this era of data-driven decision-making, they set a precedent not only for their department’s success but also the advancement of fire prevention services across the city of Memphis.