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