AMU Emergency Management Opinion Public Safety

Managing Community Risk Reduction in the Fire Service

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By Randall Hanifen
Contributor, EDM Digest

One of the movements in the fire service over the past two decades is the movement towards community risk reduction as opposed to fire prevention. This change in philosophy places more resources towards those actions that lower the overall risk to the community, helping to save lives and improve the local economy.

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Changing Traditional Fire Prevention to Mitigate Community Risk

Beginning with the landmark 1973 report “America Burning” by the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control, the United States fire service began to look at fire prevention as opposed to solely focusing on fire suppression. As many people in the business world know — especially those employed in the workplace safety profession — preventing a fire is far cheaper and far less disruptive than just cleaning up after the event occurs.

Over time, fire prevention bureaus were established within fire departments or within other community departments, such as the building department. These bureaus typically focused on enforcing a fire code developed from previous fires’ after-action reports.

Once this tactic grew more successful, fire prevention bureaus began public education programs to teach fire safety. These programs were a good idea, because previous fire investigations showed that human intervention and error were often the primary cause of a fire, and only so many engineering controls could be built into any structure to prevent a fire.

Humans are the common denominator in many fires. Often, they are uneducated on the hazards of their actions.

Adopting the Community Paramedicine Program

Many municipal fire departments offer emergency medical services. However, call volume often exceeds a department’s capabilities.

Some first responder agencies now provide a community paramedicine program that follows up with medical patients after they are discharged from the hospital. This program was adopted for a variety of reasons, including monetary incentives offered by medical care providers. However, the need for this program is growing, so it will require more personnel.

Privacy Is the Biggest Hazard in Community Fire Prevention

Because you have the right of privacy in your home by constitutional law, the fire department cannot routinely inspect your home in the same manner that public buildings are inspected. While this right to privacy is good, it increases the personal risk of community residents by reducing the opportunity to prevent most fires.

Some forward-thinking company officers find hazards on EMS calls or previous investigation calls at a home and explain the hazard to the home’s occupant. However, a fire department cannot enforce any change.

While fires in businesses cause great monetary losses, the frequency of fires are exponentially higher in residential properties such as homes and apartment buildings. Also, these properties are not generally required (except for some) to have fire detection and suppression systems.

That poses a greater risk for homeowners and apartment dwellers. Statistically, fires are more likely to occur during sleeping hours; occupants can be trapped and killed due to the lack of smoke detectors or suppression equipment.

Departmental Disconnects Are Also a Factor in Reducing Community Risk

By design in most fire-rescue organizations, prevention and operations are separated. Also, personnel in these departments work different schedules.

Because of this separation, most operations personnel only think of fire prevention when they are handed a stack of monthly fire inspections that need completion. Unfortunately, most company-level inspectors know the basics of exit lights and fire extinguishers, but they do not have advanced knowledge of the community’s fire code.

Some organizations send fire companies to conduct public education programs, but few of them prepare their personnel to actually deliver a well-crafted and coherent message. That leaves the crews with a fear of public speaking and a negative view of delivering public education programs.

Similarly, some fire departments try to provide a presence at health fairs and other community events However, there is often no self-sustaining or independent program, so the fire, EMS and hospital personnel are grouped together and their value is not seen by community residents.

Community risk reduction involves not only all of these technical aspects, but also cultural aspects. These cultural aspects will be discussed in a future article.

Dr. Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. from a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.

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