Finding a Home in Boston

At the beginning of the semester, we were visitors to Boston—students passing through for several years before moving. Looking at Boston’s iconic harbor and skyline, we felt more like tourists than residents. After spending four months working closely with the incredible public servants in Boston’s Fire Department (BFD) and Boston Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT), we no longer feel like transients.

Now, when fire trucks pass, we know they are crewed by people like Lieutenant Brian Sellon—our primary contact at the BFD, a 20-year veteran of the force whose hard work, insight, and assistance proved invaluable. We think of firefighters like Captain Mark Corwin, the cancer survivor whose moving story inspired us to focus on the carcinogen-exposure project.

We know that even seemingly simple civic actions—a pothole filled, a trash can emptied, or a safety inspection completed—have a talented, dedicated, and inventive supporting cast behind them. We are energized by the ground-breaking work of DoIT, whose CityScore dashboard is allowing Boston’s leadership to quantify, track, and improve services across the city, making the city of Boston safer and smarter.  

To our team, Boston is now a home, and the dedicated public servants that keep it running are our friends and colleagues. In closing the semester out, we wanted to leave our new home slightly better off. Above all, we wanted to leave the city with practical, actionable recommendations that outlast the class. Using human-centered research, design thinking, and agile prototyping methods we have come up with a series of recommendations that will help the Boston Fire Department reduce hazardous exposure while streamlining reporting. These recommendations have been packaged into several different artifacts, with different audiences and purposes for each:

  1. Final Presentation: Designed for a general audience, our presentation discusses the two challenges that we have focused on this semester—hazardous exposure and data reporting—and the prototype that we hope will serve as a useful model for improvement in both issue areas.

  2. Policy Recommendations: This report, written for our partners in the City of Boston and the Boston Fire Department, includes action items we believe the City can undertake to continue their pioneering efforts to enhance firefighter safety while improving reporting and analytics.

  3. Technical Spec: This document contains detailed guidance for the City of Boston’s DoIT on what we believe it would take to scale our prototype into a working product.


It was truly an honor for the team to spend several months learning from the selfless firefighters of the Boston Fire Department and committed civil servants of the Boston Department of Innovation and Technology. We look forward to witnessing further advances as Boston—one of America’s most historic cities—continues to reinvent itself as one of the most innovative.

Sean Cochran, Neel Mehta, Algirde Pipikaite, Charlie Sellew, Chanteclaire Swett


Thinking Inside the (Check)box: Simple Solutions to Thorny Safety Problems

Photo credit: Aircraft Checklist History/

Photo credit: Aircraft Checklist History/

It was October 30, 1935. A small crowd of senior army officers and industry executives gathered at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio. They were there to watch Boeing demonstrate their new state-of-the-art bomber prototype, the Model 299, being flown by one of the army’s top test pilots.

The crowd watched as the airplane roared to life, taking flight and climbing confidently to several hundred feet. Without warning, the airplane slowed into a stall, turning sharply on one wing and falling to the ground. Both pilots were killed. An investigation revealed a tragically simple cause: the highly-experienced test pilot had left a simple locking mechanism on the airplane’s flight controls engaged. Newspapers declared the aircraft too complex for human pilots.

From the ashes, a simple idea was born: the checklist. Pilots began to use simple checklists to remember the dozens of steps required to takeoff and land the airplane, dramatically reducing the incidence of accidents. The Model 299 was tamed, eventually becoming the venerable B-17 of World War II.

When thinking about improvements to prevention and safety standards in the Boston Fire Department, we didn’t begin our brainstorming session with the Model 299 in mind. Our Harvard student team was continuing our work with the department to improve the reporting of exposures to carcinogenic materials and, ultimately, to reduce firefighters’ risk of cancer.

Our research had given us valuable insights, such as the “dirty helmet” culture of the Boston Fire Department. Individuals often keep their helmets dirty as a badge of honor, even though the “dirt” on the helmet can be carcinogenic, increasing their risk of cancer. We now had to turn these insights into a concrete prototype idea.

We kicked off a prototype brainstorming session with the ”Yes, and exercise. Participants can share absolutely any idea, with only one rule: the idea must start with the phrase “Yes, and.” This exercise’s goal is to promote creativity and to avoid shutting down someone’s contribution. As one of our mentors, Dana Chisnell of the U.S. Digital Service, told us, “Yes, and” exercises should end up with a least one idea that involves outer space.

We did not quite reach outer space, but our “Yes, and” exercise led us to some important realizations:

  1. Carcinogen exposure will not be solved through an improved form or higher rates of completion. No form can protect the well-being of a firefighter if they aren’t taking the necessary precautions to prevent exposure to carcinogenic material in the first place.

  2. There are many small tasks that can reduce a firefighter’s lifetime carcinogen exposure, such as washing one’s hand tools or wiping one’s face after a fire. Keeping track of all these steps can be cumbersome, an area where automation could help.

We quickly realized that self-cleaning suits and carcinogen-scanning apps were not going to be feasible. But we soon settled on a dramatically cheaper and simpler solution to automate the process of reducing carcinogen exposure: a checklist. The idea came from Sean, who as a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army, uses checklists before taking off or landing. In the eighty years since the Model 299 crash, checklists have made a once dangerous pursuit remarkably safe. In the last ten years, fields as disparate as surgery and construction have been adopting checklists to dramatically improve safety. Checklists have grown significantly in popularity due to these successes and the New York Times Bestseller, The Checklist Manifesto.

The more we thought about a checklist for firefighters, the more promise we saw in the idea. By creating an online checklist and integrating the data currently gathered on paper exposure reports, we could directly improve firefighters’ health by reducing their exposure while also creating a seamless path for reporting.

Our checklist prototype, available at   .

Our checklist prototype, available at

With our ideas clearly focused by our brainstorming session, we rapidly developed a low-fidelity version of the prototype to test with firefighters. Over the next several weeks, we will iterate upon and improve our ideas as we receive feedback from users and the Boston Fire Department Leadership.

Sean Cochran, Neel Mehta, Algirde Pipikaite, Charlie Sellew, Chanteclaire Swett

Just Another Day at the Office

Just as we sat down in the fire station kitchen to interview him, Lieutenant Phil Cetrino had to run.

An automated voice on the public address boomed from the hallway—a Boston resident a few blocks away needed medical attention and Engine 10 was being summoned to help.

Lieutenant Cetrino had three minutes to rush from the fire station’s upstairs kitchen to the fire truck downstairs, where he would meet the rest of his team—three minutes before their fire truck needed to depart their station and wind through Boston’s crowded streets. For Lieutenant Cetrino, it was just another day at the office.

It was a short first interview for our Harvard student team.

We were continuing our class project to improve the Boston Fire Department’s process for reporting carcinogen exposures. Despite its brevity, this first interview highlighted the mission-focused and on-call nature of life in a firehouse—important context for us as we design, prototype, and test solutions for firefighters like Lieutenant Cetrino.

Over the next several hours, we managed to conduct several longer interviews with lieutenants and captains like Lieutenant Cetrino, the first line supervisors charged with leading shifts of three to five firefighters. Their insights provided valuable insights into the life, rhythm, and culture of a firehouse and the current reporting process.

Using these insights, we created a journey map on a whiteboard to describe the existing exposure and injury reporting processes: 

Team Boston’s journey map sketch during a brainstorming session

Team Boston’s journey map sketch during a brainstorming session

Digital version of the journey map

Digital version of the journey map

Several themes emerged from our interviews:

  1. There is strong support for exposure reporting among individual champions, often firefighters or fire department colleagues who have personally experienced cancer.

  2. Firefighters sometimes underestimate the risks of exposure due to a lack of knowledge about typical exposure levels in fires and the long latency period between exposure and negative health outcomes.

  3. Firefighters sometimes do not see the connection between forms and their core work of protecting the public, contributing to a low rate of form completion.

  4. The Boston Fire Department wants to analyze exposure and injury data, but cannot do so currently because forms are often processed on paper and hand-carried to headquarters.

  5. Filling out exposure reports is possible within the constraints of a firefighter’s day. Injury reports use the same form as exposure reports but are completed at a higher rate.

Next week, we will use these insights to brainstorm ways to improve exposure reporting. To generate a wide variety of ideas, we will use the improv-inspired "Yes And" exercise to allow ourselves to imagine solutions both big and small. From there, we will select ideas to develop and prototype with the Boston Fire Department and Citywide Analytics Team.

Sean Cochran, Neel Mehta, Algirde Pipikaite, Charlie Sellew, Chanteclaire Swett

Nine Alarm Fire: Combating Risks in Firefighters’ Lives

Photo credit: Mark Garfinkel,

Photo credit: Mark Garfinkel,

Captain Mark Corwin pointed out the third story window of the Boston Fire Department’s headquarters building toward an older industrial building in the distance. He described a nine-alarm inferno that in 2002 threatened to engulf the building—tamed only by the valiant efforts of 200 firefighters. He told us that many of the firefighters have now been diagnosed with various forms of cancer.

Our group of Harvard students had just finished our first meeting with leaders from the Boston Fire Department, where we learned about a number of project needs:

  • key performance indicator dashboard to quantify performance across the department,

  • unified human resources tracking software to unite multiple legacy systems,

  • fleet management software to better track the maintenance requirements,

  • accident reporting database to track trends, and

  • hazardous material exposure reporting to track exposures to dangerous carcinogens like those in the 2002 fire.

To narrow our scope to a specific problem, we used three criteria:

  1. Where are the needs the greatest?

  2. Where can our skillset add the most value?

  3. What’s the counterfactual – what will happen if we don’t do it?

Needs: We stepped back from each of these project areas to assess the challenges underlying the need. Many of the problems the Boston Fire Department faces are compelling, but in our interviews we noticed that there was one important challenge that the chiefs kept returning to: the long-term cancer risk to firefighters, driven by repeated exposures to hazardous and carcinogenic materials. They kept coming back to stories like Mark’s about the 2002 fire and the 50 firefighters now battling cancer.

Skillset: Because our team brings a varied set of perspectives to bear on this problem, we wanted an issue where our interdisciplinary skillset will be particularly valuable. Hazardous materials reporting present not just a technical problem, but also a behavioral and managerial challenge. The barriers to reporting include a paper form to be filled out manually, but also the overall complexity of reporting after fires, allowing us to broaden our analysis to go beyond the form itself, into the physical and social environment in which it is completed.

Counterfactual: We considered where each project would end up if we chose not to take it on. Some of the initiatives are already underway with the support of outside vendors, making our potential contributions less meaningful. We feel some other problems could be addressed through technical solutions alone. For these we will work with the Fire Department and the City of Boston’s Department of Innovation & Technology to identify the engineering resources necessary to build these tools.

We have chosen to tackle the exposure reporting project because of the interdisciplinary approach it requires and the lack of internal capacity for the fire department to take it on in the immediate future. This is where we believe our team can make the most meaningful contribution.

Next week, we will visit several fire stations across Boston. By interviewing and observing firefighters in their everyday environment, we hope to learn more about the barriers to hazardous material exposure reporting. Our ultimate goals are to improve the quantity, quality, and usability of exposure reports to protect the health of individual firefighters and to enable long-term analysis of cancer trends.

Sean Cochran, Neel Mehta, Algirde Pipikaite, Charlie Sellew, Chanteclaire Swett

Safer and Smarter—Using Technology to Improve Firefighting in Boston


In 1975, the City of Boston had 417 major fires, a number that fell to only 40 by 2012 due to, among other advances, stronger building codes and improved firefighting techniques. Far from resting on its laurels, the Boston Fire Department is posing a new question: what next? How can the department make firefighting safer while reducing that number even further?

Technology looks to be a powerful tool toward this end. Martin J. Walsh, the Mayor of Boston, and Boston’s Citywide Analytics Team have used big data to make numerous city services safer and smarter, measuring everything from amount of trash collected to number of building permits issued. How can we leverage the ever-growing power of technology (not to mention the booming tech scene in Boston) to help the Fire Department?

Through a Harvard Kennedy School of Government field class led by Nick Sinai, we are starting to work with the City of Boston’s Analytics Team and the Boston Fire Department. The Boston Fire Department would like to tackle a multitude of projects; our first goal is to determine the problem area where the need and our ability to help are greatest.

We have two major criteria for choosing a project. First, through employee interviews and on-site visits to City Hall and the Boston Fire Department headquarters, we will aim to understand the largest barriers to the Fire Department’s important mission to serve and protect the community and favor projects that attack those barriers. Second, we will favor projects where our diverse set of backgrounds will be most useful. That is, we will prefer complex projects with several angles of attack that require interdisciplinary approaches.

Our varied backgrounds provide us with different powerful lenses through which to tackle challenges:

  • Chante has the perspective of a product manager and user researcher. She previously worked for Guru Learning, an education technology startup located in Silicon Valley. Her background will help us design and test our prototypes in ways that ensure they are addressing user needs.

  • Neel brings the lens of a computer scientist. As a Teaching Fellow for CS50 (Harvard’s introductory computer science course) and as a software engineer at Khan Academy, he has experience not only developing products but also teaching and coaching others. His software engineering expertise will help us build a working prototype.

  • Charlie has the perspective of a city policymaker. He previously worked in city government in Washington DC, where he designed school accountability policies and analyzed measures of school quality. His background in data analysis will help us design informative tools for city leaders.

  • Sean has the lens of a government manager and people leader. He is an U.S. Army officer with ten years of experience in management, which will help us understand the distinct challenges and opportunities in working within large-scale government agencies to design and implement change.

  • Algirde brings the perspective of a project manager. A lawyer by training, she has extensive experience managing teams in the field of communications and online media. She helped develop an early online shopping website, and her background will help our team manage our limited time and resources to deliver a valuable prototype.

Over the next two weeks, we will be meeting with several kinds of Fire Department employees who could use the software we will be building. This will include district fire chiefs and captains, who will be on-the-ground end users of the tools we design and prototype; Fire Department officials at Headquarters, who will be interpreting and acting on information we help the Fire Department gather; and city leaders in City Hall, who will be important champions of any tools we propose. While project ideas remain unclear, we look forward to working with and learning from these users as we define several concrete problems, narrow down the list to a primary goal, flesh out specifications for the project, and begin prototyping a solution.


Sean Cochran, Neel Mehta, Algirde Pipikaite, Charlie Sellew, Chanteclaire Swett