Saving lives, protecting property; for professional firefighters, that’s business as usual, even though it means putting their own safety and long-term health at risk. To give them the best chance at longer careers — and lives — the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) launched an effort to understand and address the health factors that affect their more than 300,000 members. To do this required a huge technology push designed to overcome the interoperability issues that are all-too-familiar in the world of EMR systems.
IAFF, as the labor representative for professional fire and emergency services personnel across the U.S. and Canada, created the Wellness Fitness Initiative (WFI) to provide resources and guidance for more frequent, thorough physical, mental, and emotional wellness screenings and support. As Jim Brinkley, IAFF’s Assistant to the General President for Technical Assistance and Information Resources, explained, the rates of disability and terminal diseases for fire fighters are much higher than for the population at large. The WFI program called for data collection, but there was no road map for how to do it.
IAFF leadership believed that, for the program to truly be effective, health data should be captured in a centralized location, then analyzed to uncover trends. But, each municipality employs its own methods, systems, and strategies, driven by policy and budget; in fact, some smaller fire departments kept paper records. Also, Brinkley said, each department captured information, such as lung capacity, to different degrees of precision. Creating a common database would first involve determining what—and how—data should be collected in the first place.
Working with epidemiologists from the University of Maryland, IAFF established the 93 essential data points that a centralized system would store, along with how to measure them. Privacy is critical, so while the system would develop profiles in order to spot trends and risks, all identifying information would be removed.
Building the actual system, however, required finding the right technology partner. “We’ve worked with consultants who give you what you want, what you ask for,” Brinkley said. “But we needed someone to explain what we need, why we need it, and the ROI, without trying to upsell us.”
IAFF selected The Cornerstone Professional Group, LLC (Cornerstone) to develop the system, as they were, in Brinkley’s words: “A trusted contractor and partner with a history of performance.” He said that, rather than start the engagement by asking, “What do you want?” they instead “spent the entire kickoff meeting on the ‘Why?’ of the program.” This allowed stakeholders to focus on the outcomes.
In addition to the technical development of the system, Cornerstone also led development of the governance and structure policies for the program. “Larger departments have been doing this sort of data collection for 25 years or more. They aren’t going to do it differently because another department does,” Brinkley said. A structure that all parties could agree to upfront was necessary to avoid disputes down the line.
Cornerstone CEO, Ludge Olivier, described the end product as a portal that allows for flexible data collection, designed to ensure the integrity of the data, from capture to reporting. Local departments can upload a standardized file or enter the information manually. By removing barriers to entry, he explained, “We remove the worry that local fire departments can’t participate, due to budgetary or interoperability issues.”
A pilot program is now in use by two large fire departments, one on the East Coast and one in the Midwest. Due to the requirements of the federal funding they received as well as budget cycles, there was a specific time frame to complete the project, and Brinkley said that Cornerstone’s project management kept the participants on task and on time.
For the future, Brinkley said that IAFF is looking forward to getting more departments onboard and showing them the value of using the system. While there are some costs to each local department, Brinkley said the return is exceptional. “We’ve shown an ROI of two to three dollars for every dollar spent, in terms of better firefighter health and productivity, “he said.
Olivier said that the takeaway from the project is the focus on results, as it provides a mechanism to improve the long-term health and quality of life for professional firefighters and paramedics. “It’s not just about technology. It’s about what you do with it.”