Fighting fire with digital data: Boston Fire Department in the 21st Century

Thanks to digitization and new operating models in civic technology, Boston firefighters rush into burning buildings armed with more than just fire hoses.


When Mayor Marty Walsh entered office in Boston in 2014, he made it a priority to integrate technology and data-driven approaches into the City’s work.[1] Walsh pushed for City permits and records to be digitized, and he called for making data from these systems available for analysis. Walsh also commissioned a new team called Citywide Analytics (CA) to bring the power of digital data to everything the city does.

Mayor Marty Walsh reviews his data dashobard
(Mayor Marty Walsh reviews his data dashboard)

CA aims to improve quality of life and enhance City operations through four major pillars: performance and process management, pilots and product development, data visualization, and open data/public engagement.[2]

The team helps transition City data to digital settings and partners with agencies to analyze data and design new tools, creating tremendous opportunity for change in operating models.[3] The Boston Fire Department (BFD) was one of CA’s first targets for digital innovation, and its operating model has shifted to incorporate powerful new approaches.



Historically, BFD has responded to calls without knowing the details of the buildings or any surrounding hazards, sending a standard response team. CA worked to build Building Intelligence System (BIS) to solve this problem.[4]

BIS is a set of computer-based interactive maps that allows BFD to see the location of each engine. It also shows building floor plans, fire hydrants, and any potential hazards in the area—from dangerous chemicals in a nearby laboratory to buildings currently under construction. BIS draws data from seven separate City data sets and overlays in onto a Google Maps platform, so that it is easy to use.[5]

BFD dispatch, with BIS system
(BFD dispatch, with BIS system)

BIS has changed BFD’s operating model by allowing for optimization of dispatch based on location of vehicles and identified hazards. It also empowers firefighters to make informed decisions about hazards and how to mitigate them as they rush to the scene. Putting data in the hands of firefighters lets them make data-driven decisions and improves their safety and effectiveness.

“This will put [data] at the fingertips of firefighters so they are not walking into a building blind” – Fire Commissioner Joseph E. Finn[6]


BFD also created a new data dashboard, FireStat, that allows firefighters to see their work schedules more easily and allows executives to monitor shift swapping and to flag firefighters who are working more than the designated number of hours.[7] This has been critical for reducing unsafe overtime work hours and spotting errors early. [8]


BFD’s changes in operating model have been successful, but they were not without challenges. Digital integration in the public sector requires overcoming resistance to change among employees in historically unchanging working environments.

To get buy-in, CA partnered very deeply, holding meetings with BFD leaders and firefighters to understand their needs. The digital tools created were designed to respond to specific challenges and friction points cited, which helped created interest and buy-in for the changes versus new tools imposed top-down.[9] This demonstrates investments in change management that must accompany efforts for digitization. Per a CA team member speaking at a panel at HKS:

“It’s really about the people – government technology often fails with implementation…the trust and collaboration with people affected by the implementation of data driven systems is just as important as the data behind the innovative idea.[10]


BFD is poised to build on its success, pushing forward with adapting its operating model to take advantage of digital tools. Including:

  • Where there’s smoke…: BFD can continue to advance its operating model by incorporating predictive analytics. NYC created a new data mining program to anticipate where fires might start.[11] It uses an algorithm, pulling data from five agencies into 60 risk factors that create lists of buildings most vulnerable to fire.[12] BFD can build on this example, further linking building inspection data to BFD operations and increasingly preventing rather than responding after the fact.
  • Move to mobile: BIS has transformed information flow, but it still relies on a dispatcher to relay information via radio. The next frontier for BIS is to integrate with tablet or smartphone so that firefighters can easily access the needed information at their fingertips in real-time.
  • Demonstrating effectiveness: A major challenge for BFD will be how to demonstrate the effectiveness of innovations that support prevention, which is hard to measure. BFD must create compelling case studies to keep firefighters and the public engaged and bought-in in support of digital innovation.

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[1] “Analytics Play Key Role in Boston’s Tech Modernization”

[2] “Citywide Analytics Team: 2015 Year in Review”

[3] “Analytics Play Key Role in Boston’s Tech Modernization”

[4] “Boston Equips Firefighters with Hazard Data”

[5] “City Hall’s Technology Journey: Using Data to Improve the Lives of Citizens”

[6] “Mayor Cheers Progress of new city data team”

[7]  “Citywide Analytics Team: 2015 Year in Review”

[8] “Citywide Analytics Team: 2015 Year in Review”

[9] “City Hall’s Technology Journey: Using Data to Improve the Lives of Citizens”

[10] “Government Technology. Only As Good As the People Running It”

[11] “How New York’s Fire Department Uses Data Mining”

[12] “New York City Fights Fire with Data”


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Student comments on Fighting fire with digital data: Boston Fire Department in the 21st Century

  1. Interesting post, Reilly! I actually met with Marty Walsh in his office last year and he was showing my group all the data he has been collecting on Boston, but I didn’t know that it extended to the fire department! As someone who has a few friends who work as fire fighters, I think this is a great step in making their jobs safer! I think that having the blueprints and data is great, but I was wondering if there were any technology advances that could help the firefighters once they were on the scene. One of the biggest problems with fighting fires is that fire can be very unpredictable. While the data on hazards will be super helpful, I wonder how often it will be updated, and even if it is updated everyday, there can and will be surprises on the scene. It turns out that the Melbourne fire dept has begun using a quadrocopter, which is a “remotely controlled aerial camera platform capable of hovering above fires, detecting hotspots and sending real-time vision back to a central control station” [1]. I think that this will be helpful in allowing the firefighters to see exactly what they’re walking into, when they walk into it.


  2. Thanks for the post! I think the Building Intelligence System is a great step to making firefighting safer and more effective. Fire fighting was an important aspect of my last job, and I spent a considerable amount of time coordinating with the civilian fire departments. Firefighters are constantly facing new environments and understanding the high level building layout and risks before entering definitely makes the job much safer. Additionally, I am skeptical but hopeful of the fire prevention plan. I think there is immense value in fire prevention, but I fear the effectiveness will be limited by the scope of information the algorithm can receive.

  3. Thank you for shedding more light on this topic, Reilly. I feel that giving our first responders as much information as possible to keep them safe as they risk their lives to protect us should be a top priority. One key quote you cited especially stood out to me: “government technology often fails with implementation.” I lack experience working in government, but it does seem that there is a lot of inertia when it comes to implementing IT and digitization projects (especially large ones) at government agencies. According a report published by the Standish Group, only 6.4% of federal IT projects with $10 million or more in labor costs were successful. This trend is not unique to the American government, as UK and Australian governments have had similar experiences [1]. In addition to the three action items you mentioned, I suggest two other operational changes that may help BFD succeed where the other projects failed:

    1. Share the risk of the implementing the project with other agencies and private companies. Oftentimes, the government signs time and material contracts with private agencies for services due to the large size of the projects. This gives contractors an incentive to bill the government as much as possible. Given these new initiatives to help firefighters are IT related and can easily be broken down into modules, the BFD can sign fixed costs contracts to not only reduce cost but also share the risk of the project with the contractor.

    2. Increase transparency. This goes hand in hand with your last action item of demonstrating effectiveness. Though, it will be important to show not only instances of successes of the innovations, but also when those innovations fail and what BFD learned. This could give further legitimacy to the project as a whole and bring more awareness of the effort.


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