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Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on 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.
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.
About the Author: Dr. Randall W. Hanifen is a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area and a fire service consultant. He is also a faculty member at American Military University, teaching courses in its Emergency & Disaster Management program. He has a B.S. in Fire Administration, a M.S. in Fire Service Executive Leadership, and a Ph.D. in Executive Management of Homeland Security. He is the associate author of Disaster Planning and Control. Randall serves as the Executive Chairperson of a County Technical Rescue Team, a Taskforce Leader for FEMA’s Ohio Task Force 1 US&R team, and is the Vice-Chair of IAFC Company Officers Section. He serves as a member of NFPA 1021 Fire Officer and NFPA 1026 Incident Management committees He is credentialed as a Fire Officer by the Center for Public Safety Excellence and has been accepted as a Fellow to the Institute of Fire Engineers. Randall has provided presentations and trainings for the Ohio Fire Chief’s Association, Fire Rescue International, Emergency Management Institute, and the IAFC Board of Directors. To contact the author, send an email to IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.