Community Risk Reduction, Buzz Word?
Community Risk Reduction is the current buzz word in the fire service. Some departments are creating a Community Risk Reduction section or changing the Fire Prevention section to this buzz word. Is Community Risk Reduction a real thing or is it just a nice sounding term? Also, is it more than just changing the name of Fire Prevention without changing the vision or activities?
I have spent over twenty years in the fire service working for three different departments. The first department was volunteer, the second was private industry, and the third a municipality. I am very proud of the work I have accomplished in these three departments. Responding to emergencies is what we as firefighters love to do. The ability to help someone when their world is crumbling around them is a noble cause. During this time, I have seen far too much heartache that could have been prevented. As I mature in my career, I see a much larger need for helping our communities prevent as many of these emergencies as possible.
Community Risk Reduction vs. Fire Prevention
Traditional Fire Prevention is often looked at with disdain by those on the floor. It does not carry the excitement of the structure fire, wildland fire, cut and rescue, medical emergency, hazmat, etc. Walking through a business checking for high piled stock, blocked electrical panels, and faulty wiring simply can’t compete with the adventure seeking souls of firefighters. I do not mean to belittle these activities, to the contrary, I want to emphasize them. We do need to face reality when we are asking our firefighters to do certain activities though.
Will simply changing the name of Fire Prevention to Community Risk Reduction solve this problem? In most cases, it won’t and is Community Risk Reduction simply Fire Prevention? I argue that Fire Prevention is an important part of Community Risk Reduction, but depending on your community, it may not be the largest part.
What is your Community’s Risk?
For a Community Risk Reduction program to work, we must first understand the risk of our community. Look at the community as a whole. Look at the type of calls for service you have and which ones cause the greatest harm to your community. Harm can be economic, deaths/injuries/sickness, or even harm to your reputation (Are you known as a “safe” place). Is the greatest risk to your community in your businesses? Your neighborhoods? Is flooding, wildfire, hazmat, earthquake, drowning, tornado, terrorism, suicide, mental health, childhood delinquency, family self-sufficiency, etc. where you should be placing your emphasis? These are the questions we should be asking to understand our risk.
I have heard many people say, “How are we supposed to do all of that and still perform our required Fire Prevention activities such as plan checks and inspections?” A valid question and one that must be looked at. I’d like to propose a couple of questions as well. “Are we doing some of these activities because we have always done them, or because they actually make a difference?” and “Is there a different way to do these activities that will garner at least the same result or maybe even a better one?”
One area we may look at depending on our community risk evaluation would be, do we need to visit every business on an annual basis or do some of them pose a significantly lower risk and can be physically visited every 2, 3 or 5 years? On the years we don’t visit them, can we send out a survey to the business asking them to provide us with certain information such as fire extinguisher expiration dates, exit requirements, electrical, etc. and do we have the ability to give them the information as to why these are important? If this is appropriate for your communities risk, you just found more time to concentrate on what your community’s true risk is.
Prioritization of our Efforts
There are a couple of popular activities currently that are tied to Community Risk Reduction. One is home safety visits from fire personnel and the other is residential smoke alarm installation programs. Both of these on the surface are vitally important and noble activities. Unfortunately, they often fall short of their intended goals. Let me ask you a couple of questions? Do you know what percentage of homes in your community do not have smoke alarms? Do you know which part of your community has the least percentage of smoke alarms? These same questions can be asked for CO monitors, first aid kits, 72-hour kits, fire extinguishers, pool fences, etc. Unless you understand the answers to these questions, you may be putting a lot of effort into areas or programs that just aren’t needed.
Let’s look at home safety visits now. It would be wonderful if we could visit every home and business helping families to reduce their risk. There are two realities we must face though. First, we do not have enough staff to do this. Second, many of them do not want us in their homes or they won’t dedicate the time and energy it takes to make an appointment and listen to the information. Let’s not also forget that we have varying levels of excitement regarding home visits from our crews. If they are to go into someone’s home, will they give consistent information and quality information? Please don’t throw in the towel. I think there may be a better way.
Virtual Community Risk Reduction
Many of these activities can be performed virtually. Virtual Community Risk Reduction looks at these problems holistically. First, you send a survey out to your community with the questions you want to be answered. Do you have a working smoke alarm in your home? Is there a CO monitor installed in your home? Do you have barriers such as a fence around your pool? Do you have a 72-hour kit? Are there children in your home who do not have a bike or skateboard helmet? Do you use extension cords as permanent wiring in your home? Wherever you think your community risk lies, ask a question about it to find out if you are right.
Just asking questions is not doing much to improve the risk of your community though. Virtual Risk Reduction gives you the opportunity to provide answers to your questions. Based on how the survey is answered, a report is generated. Tell them why they should have smoke alarms and if your community has a program. Do you have a PSA regarding smoke alarms, plug that in too. If you don’t, utilize one of the NFPA, Vision 20/20 or other videos available from other reputable organizations. Tailored survey reports, give your community the information they need and want. Red, yellow, or green color-coded responses emphasize the importance of each question you have.
Community Risk Metrics
Now you can see where your true risk lies. For example, District 1 in your community has an average of 22% of the households with smoke alarms while District 2 has 71% and District 3 has 87%. Where would you emphasize your smoke alarm program? It now becomes clear where you should place your time, talents, and budget. This also makes it easy to justify when applying for grants. “We have a goal to increase working smoke detectors in District 1 from 22% to 45% in the next calendar year.” Or, you can go to your city council member who represents District 1 asking for their political and monetary support to reduce the risk in their district. Demonstrate the need and you can justify your requests.
Motivate Firefighters to do Community Risk Reduction
If you walked into one of your firehouses and said, “Today we are going to knock on random doors in our community asking them if they would like us to install a smoke alarm.” how would that be received? I hope they would be excited about it, but the reality is you would probably be met with resistance. I can imagine some of them would think, “I’m not a door to door salesman. Do these people even need smoke alarms? They don’t care if they have smoke alarms or not.”
What if you walked into that same firehouse and said, “In your first in area, only 22% of the homes have smoke alarms as compared to 73% for the rest of the department. I have a list of homes here who have said they do not have a smoke alarm and they would like one.” I admit, it is not as exciting as putting a fire out, but you have shown the need, justified the cause, and prioritized with a list. It is much easier for me to go talk to someone who has a need and the interest than it is to knock on someone’s door who is not expecting me, may not have a need, and may not want me there.
It is important to follow these activities up continually with feedback to your crews. “We have gone from 22% to 31% of the homes in district 1 having a smoke alarm in the past 3 months. We are making a difference.” As you make this difference, your risk profile will change. Due to your efforts over the last year as it pertains to smoke detectors, you have lowered the risk to your community. Now maybe the larger risk is preparing your community for wildfires. You can now focus on this area or any other as your risk profile changes. Obviously, you can tackle many of these at the same time, but it is important to know your risks and if you are improving them or not.
Moving Forward with Community Risk Reduction
This article is intended to emphasize the importance of a Community Risk Reduction Program that looks at the true risk to a community and improve it. Simply doing the same thing under a new name is not an improvement. Community Risk Reduction is a moving target that can be hit if we look at it metrically and utilize tools which allow you to get into your community and provide them with the tools and information they need. By prioritizing this information, showing the need, and providing follow up results to the crews performing the work, firefighters are much more apt to support your Community Risk Reduction efforts.
Please click on the following links to see an example of a Virtual Community Risk Reduction program that can be adapted to your community.
Brent Faulkner is the CEO of Virtual CRR. He has 22 years of experience in the fire service. During this time, he has responded to numerous emergency situations including structure fires, wildland fires, hazardous materials responses, emergency medical situations, and numerous types of rescues. In addition, he has served on a Type 1 Hazardous Materials Response Team for 16 years.
Brent had a defining moment in his career which, as a result, lead him to Virtual CRR. He lead a team in critical infrastructure protection at a recognized Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Terrorism Fusion Center. This team was responsible for increasing the safety of critical infrastructure as it relates to terrorism, general security, and natural disasters. He also specializes in emergency preparedness for homeowners and businesses. He has a master’s degree in management, a bachelor’s degree in occupational studies, an associate’s degree in hazardous materials response, and another in fire science.