One of the most important tasks a fire officer, or typically the company officer, must complete after an incident is to submit a complete and accurate incident report. There are a number of reasons why it is important for company officers to be diligent in the completion of incident reports. In the post, I will discuss why their importance and how we can write an effective incident report.
So, what makes incident report writing a crucial aspect of our job?
- An incident report is a legal document. In the event of an incident leading to some form of litigation, the incident report may certainly be subpoenaed. Gordon Graham, a popular public safety consultant, explains that avoiding civil liability requires two things: “First, you must do your job right. Second, after getting it done right, you must be able to prove it.” The only way to prove it is by properly documenting the incident.
- It helps chiefs and administrators justify budgets and staffing. Information is power, especially in the budgeting arena. The better we are at documenting our strengths and weaknesses on emergency responses, the better the information will be when the chief looks at the future of the organization.
- Proper incident reporting helps us understand the fire problem in the United States. The National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) is a data collection initiative managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). All 50 state fire management agencies report emergency responses through NFIRS, and most require fire departments in their state to use NFIRS. Additionally, reporting to NFIRS is required if your department has received a grant under the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program.
- Complete incident reports can help us individually. Most incident reporting programs allow you to run queries on archived information. If we accurately record our actions in a report, we can use that information to build our resumes for promotions. Providing accurate and complete information in an incident report allows us to quantify our experience for promotions. Which do you think looks better on a resume?
- I served as an operations officer at numerous structure fires.
- Over the last year, I responded to 100 structure fires and served as an operations officer for 300 hours during those incidents.
As you can see, the company officer’s job does not end when the apparatus is in quarters. Rather, that is when the documentation part of their job begins. So, let’s look at three fundamentals of incident report writing.
Fundamentals of Incident Report Writing
A vital, yet often overlooked, skill for fire officers is incident report writing. How can we write a proper and effective report? Here are three basic rules to follow.
#1 – Spelling and Grammar
It is commonly taught in report writing classes that a misspelled procedure or finding in an EMS report is akin to not having done the procedure at all. I can recall sitting through a class as a young EMT where a lawyer was questioning us using actual patient care reports. Every one of us got hammered by the lawyer for doing things like “spliting” a fracture rather than splinting it.
Correct spelling and grammar in an incident report is essential in relaying information properly. The purpose of an incident report is to paint a picture of the incident for those with a need to read the report. If it is full of spelling and grammatical errors, it will be difficult to read and could land us in hot water if the report is used in a court case. Most incident reporting applications include a spell-check feature you can use to avoid spelling errors. However, this does not spot errors all of the time. Some tips to writing good incident reports are:
- Have someone else read the report prior to completing and submitting it, especially for major incidents.
- Write in a clear and simple language that can be understood by the general public.
- Exclude technical jargon and abbreviations that a layperson cannot understand.
#2 – Accuracy of Information
Incident reports should contain accurate information. One of the most common areas to put inaccurate information is timestamps. Often, we forget to report to dispatch when we have reached a benchmark, such as fire control or patient contact. This leads to not having accurate times in our incident reports. It is important to relay benchmark events to the people keeping track of our times. This could be the dispatch center or the incident commander. Regardless of how times are tracked, they must be accurately recorded in the report.
Another area where accuracy is key is in the use of NFIRS codes. The NFIRS system uses a series of number codes for items such as incident types (fires, medical emergencies, false alarms, etc), ignition sources, and various other pieces of data. These codes assist us in analyzing response data both locally and nationally. It is important that we use the correct codes when completing our reports. FEMA has produced a Coding Questions Manual to assist us in selecting the appropriate codes.
#3 – Completeness of the Report
An incomplete report is of no use to the fire officer, the organization, or the court system. Additionally, since incident reports are legal documents, not providing all available information in the report can have legal or administrative ramifications.
An NFIRS report has certain required fields. Often, we only fill in these required fields because that is all we need to do to submit the report. However, there is so much more we can do by providing all of the information we have available to us. By doing so, it keeps us in a safe, legal territory, provides more data for budget justifications, and allows us to better understand the fire problem in the United States.
I would encourage every firefighter reading this article to consider the importance of proper report writing and apply these three fundamentals to every incident report. On top of submitting an error-free report, we must take the time to ensure our reports are accurate and complete.
Photo credit: Robert Simmons