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Fighting Fire with Better Data

Texas State University is using “smart city” ideas to help firefighters be more effective and efficient. 


Texas State English Professor Aimee Roundtree is using text mining to analyze large volumes of fire department records to find patterns and insights that can make Texas communities safer. 

Her work uses features of natural language processing, user testing and interviewing to better understand and even improve the ways people communicate. 

Supported by a State Farm Insurance community grant, her research is helping San Marcos and College Station firefighters keep better records of their work. 

Historically, there are inconsistencies in the quality of emergency incident reports. The very complicated code system that governs how first responders categorize incidents often invites problems — for example, using some codes (such as “public service” or “false alarms”) as catchalls for a wide variety of emergency situations.

a firefighter kneels in a field to speak into his handheld transceiver
a firefighter sits in the front of a fire truck with a laptop
a san marcos fire fighter walks towards the fire station and fire truck

This makes it difficult to track and identify potentially useful trends and information on fire risk. 

San Marcos Assistant Fire Chief Karl Kuhlman says having more reliable reports creates opportunities to improve public safety. 

“I think that it’s very important that our reporting be as accurate and reliable as possible,” Kuhlman said. 

The project grew out of Roundtree’s participation in a National Science Foundation grant application to use big data solutions for improving first responder services in smaller cities and towns, including Austin. 

“We’ll give partnering fire departments resources such as report templates, decision aids, and workshops on selecting incident codes and writing quality reports,” Roundtree said. “These resources can set the groundwork for creating and improving fire incident report software.” 


The national fire incident reporting system provides huge data and big analytic challenges from:

23,000+

FIRE DEPARTMENTS

22 million

INCIDENT REPORTS ANNUALLY

1,000+

EMERGENCY CODES

Source: National Fire Protection Association