Do smoke detectors save lives? If they do, how many lives have they saved? Do they justify the expenditure? To answer questions like that, you need the right data, but when budgets are tight how do you justify the expenditure?
Graham Stagg, the chief fire office for Cambridge Fire and Rescue, knows about the difficulties of trying to maximise the value of data to the fire service.
"If I speak about 'cloud' to most of my colleagues they will look out of a window and not think about ICT," Stagg told the IBM BusinessConnect 2013 conference in last week.
"There are 46 fire and rescue services in the UK and we are all doing different things, with different platforms and different technologies," Stagg said. "We don't have any data standards."
Despite the problems, Stagg believes that initiatives like big data could be very useful to him and his colleagues. "The better the information we have then the better we can do things," he said, "so, if we can get into something like big data then perhaps I can be more prepared and have measures in place to make a situation better, quicker."
"[For example], we have handed out lots of smoke detectors to lots of houses, but we have no idea if it has been successful or not, because we don’t collect data in the right way."
But first the local fire services have to stop wasting money, Stagg believes. "We waste money collecting data, we waste money copying it – probably at least twice or three times – and then inaccurately." he said.
"And anybody who understands the public sector will know that once we start doing things, we may do other things as well but we never stop anything," Stagg said. "Stopping something is dangerous and often requires someone to make a decision – and if you make a decision you may find yourself in trouble."
The lesson, said Stagg, is that "without critical information it is difficult to make informed, critical decisions".
And Stagg was keen to point out that here in the UK there are initiatives underway to try and improve on things such as fire safety. "We are moving to the UK Fire Framework, and that is a big step in the right direction," Stagg said.