Field Services: Identifying Data Worth Collecting
Last week I talked to Ed Jamison from Dallas Animal Services about the importance of gathering and using data to inform the work of field services. Shelter operations are so far ahead of field operations in gathering data that we need to catch up, but data is a foreign concept with field services. Even those agencies that do gather data don’t know what to do with it.
But just what kind of data are we talking about? We don’t want to spend time gathering tons of information and not use any of it. Luckily, there are some key pieces of data that are most important to the work of animal control officers.
Applying the SARA model
Field services can benefit a lot from the SARA model (Scan, Analyze, Respond and Assess), which is recognized as the preeminent conceptual model of problem-solving used in today’s more community-oriented policing efforts. And in order to apply the SARA model successfully, data is a must.
Once we define what the problem is, field services can decide how to work with the shelter and the community on solving it. Let’s look at parvo as one example. If a shelter is seeing an influx of parvo cases, where is it coming from? Mapping the incidence may find that 75% of the cases are coming from a particular neighborhood. That then drives a multifaceted response to the problem combining new SOPs like swapping out and sanitizing trucks between pick-ups in that area and outreach efforts to increase vaccinations.
In addition, a more intensive educational effort can be undertaken by officers in terms of talking to the public about transmission of the virus (e.g., even stepping in poop from an infected dog can carry it into the home and the virus can remain active up to six months). Such information can be distributed through handouts at dog parks or other gathering areas in the affected neighborhoods as well as in one-on-one conversations in the field.
Finally, assessment of the effectiveness of these efforts can be proven (or disproven) by another look at the incidence rates of parvo. Did they decrease? Increase? Stay flat? The only way to make adequate adjustments to officer response is to know the statistics.
Tracking volume and disposition of calls
It goes without saying that animal control agencies (or the relevant department at an animal control shelter, whether it’s government-run or managed by a nonprofit) should definitely collect information on the numbers of calls responded to and the disposition of those calls. That only makes sense to assess the amount and kind of work required of the department each year.
However, it can be helpful to show the amount of work that also resolves without needing an officer to get involved at all. For instance, agencies should not just gather the number of dog running-at-large calls, they should also note the number that are gone by the time the officer arrives. That way you can run a disposition report and see how frequently the situation resolves itself without the intervention of an officer. As any officer knows all too well, the majority of dogs running at large calls result in the animal being long gone by the time we get there! In fact, many agencies report upwards of 80% of those calls result in never seeing the dog at all.
Collecting details about dog bite cases
Last week, Ed remarked on the lack of consistency around the context of dog bites. There is also a need to collect data ranging from whether the incident occurred on or off an owner’s property to details about victimology. Is the person who got bit a child? An adult? What is the reproductive status of the dog? Was the dog tied up at the time or free-roaming?
Such details are great when talking to the media, city councils and the public about the realities surrounding dog bites and they can help teach people how to avoid getting bit. A review of a robust dataset can also reveal some surprising statistics that counter what we may believe anecdotally.
For example, several 2001 Canadian studies revealed that among adults, teenagers (ages 13 to 18), and children (younger than 13) who were bitten by dogs, adults were reported to be the most common victims. Seventy-three percent of the biting dogs had bitten an adult, 17.9% had bitten a teen and 21.5% had bitten a child. This counters the common assumption that children are most likely to be bitten.
Once you know the facts for your community, you’ll know where to allocate resources or offer dog bite prevention programs. If kids are getting bit at people’s homes, teaching them how to act like a tree when a dog is charging them on the street is not as effective as teaching them how to be safe while playing in a friend’s yard.
Analyzing factors around hit by car cases
If your agency responds to animals that are hit by a car or dead, there are some definite benefits to tracking and mapping that data. I used to work in field services in a community where field services managed tracking wildlife hit by car, and deer getting hit by cars was a major problem. We identified one street where we knew anecdotally was a bad area for deer, but anecdotes don’t have the same impact as hard data when talking to city government and trying to get more money to put towards a problem.
In this case, there was one stretch of road where we found that more deer were getting hit than anywhere else. The street ran through a wooded area that connected two residential areas. As you approached the stretches of road that ran through the residential areas, the speed limit was 25 mph but then it went up to 40 mph on the wooded stretch. We documented that cars were gunning it on that bit of road and that’s where the deer were dying. Then all we needed to do was talk to the department of transportation about putting up signs and reducing the speed limit.
Redefining success metrics
We can’t talk about the collecting and assessment of data without addressing how field services measures success. Too often, metrics focus on response times, number of calls cleared, number of citations issued and number of impounds. But these metrics just reinforce a reactionary, punitive mindset.
If we are to move away from simply reacting to calls to systematically reducing or preventing situations in the first place, we need to change the metrics. Today’s field services departments should be measuring success on calls that are cleared using long-term solutions designed to improve the lives of animals and people. That, in turn, will result in a statistical reduction in specific call types and frequency.
The world of animal care and control is forever changing, but an ever-growing body of research and data is providing us with more insight into our work. Just as city councils and the public can be swayed by data proving a particular point, field services can be inspired to let go of beliefs and practices that no longer apply to our work.
Director of national municipal and shelter support
Best Friends Animal Society