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