Community Risk Reduction

Issue 12 and Volume 9.

What’s in a name? Actually, quite a bit. On numerous occasions, I’ve written about the concepts of community risk reduction (CRR) and do so again for a very good reason-some people still don’t get it! I have run into folks who think if they change the name of their fire prevention bureau to community risk reduction bureau, they’re done. That doesn’t even begin to cover it.

But still the name is important. My former fire chief (and friend) Don Bivins once told me that if we were going to sell “prevention” to the emergency responders, we couldn’t have a fire prevention member leading the way, and we couldn’t call it prevention. I hated to admit it at the time, but he had a legitimate point. Nothing seemed to make the eyes roll like talking with some (not all) firefighters about prevention.

In other departments with which I had experience, the reaction was even more pronounced. Forget eye rolling, anyone in a white shirt was either an administration goon or a prevention goon. Neither was thought to be deserving of real respect or attention.

Name Challenge

The challenge was, and still is, how to describe these important things so that firefighters will pay attention. I’m not at all certain I have the answer, but there has been a growing national consensus on the phrase “community risk reduction.” Even where the concepts are not fully understood, the phrasing is catching on.

It’s important for people to know what it means. First, CRR is not actually a name of something; it is a process. The definition developed for the Vision 20/20 Project years ago is as follows: CRR is the identification and prioritization of risks followed by the coordinated application of resources to minimize the probability or occurrence and/or the impact of unfortunate events.

In a fire service context, it means that the fire department exists not only to respond to emergencies after the fact but to prevent or reduce the effects of their occurrence in the first place. It means the fire service will (and should) act proactively as a risk reduction entity for the community. It also assumes that the fire service can’t do it alone and must ultimately partner with other community organizations to accomplish risk- reducing objectives.

The Planning Process

It begins with a risk assessment for any given community. That risk assessment involves examining incident data to see what kind of events are popping up most frequently and where. Incident data can help us make informed decisions about deployment models, including how many stations, what type of equipment, and staffing levels to manage call loads. And for the record, deployment of emergency response resources is the backbone of a CRR plan. However, if we focus on emergency response exclusively, we’re living up to the old adage: If the only tool in your kit is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.

There are other ways to provide for public safety, or we never would have contemplated fire sprinklers, building compartmentalization, air bags for cars, or bicycle helmets. So an adequate risk assessment would also provide information on who those emergency events are impacting.

The who matters if you want to do something more than just respond. You need to also know who is involved so you can effectively focus efforts at reducing the call volume. There are other added layers of information in a risk assessment, like where target hazards are located, that don’t result in frequent calls but represent significant risks (e.g., hospitals, schools, etc.). These simple layers form the foundation of a simple community risk assessment.

The Es of CRR

Once a risk assessment is complete, and risks prioritized for specific attention, then any local community risk reduction plan must include decisions on what to do about the risks. The strategies are often referred to as the “Es” of community risk reduction.

Emergency Response is obvious, but we should consider what changes in our emergency response deployment and protocols might make a difference given specific risks. It doesn’t have to be rocket science. For example, if most of our call volume is medical, then we can ask ourselves how that affects our deployment models.

Engineering refers to the engineered solutions that can prevent incidents from occurring or mitigating the damage once they do occur. Fire sprinklers, smoke alarms, and heat-regulating technologies to prevent kitchen stovetop fires are all examples of engineering solutions.

Enforcement infers that we have passed some type of legislation giving us the authority to enforce safety requirements. Logically, it means we have a legislative strategy of some type and resources to enforce requirements like adherence to fire code requirements, fireworks laws, bicycle helmet laws, and the like.

Education is the strategy that covers a variety of approaches, all centered on educating people about safety. It can mean educating them to prevent emergency incidents, mitigating their damage if they do occur, and complying (voluntarily) with code requirements. It is important to note that education can be measured, and ultimately attempts to stimulate action can lead to a change in behavior relative to safety. Just standing up in front of people doesn’t mean they learned anything at all-we have to be sure they act on the information.

Economic Incentive refers to the strategy where we provide motivation (e.g., tax benefits for installing fire sprinklers), for compliance with safety strategies or disincentives for breaking the law (e.g., fines for fireworks violations).

Department Strategy

Creating a CRR plan, implementing it, and monitoring it for any necessary changes is not as easy as it might sound. Ultimately, balancing our limited resources and using all the available “Es” are what constitute a plan. But what one department does may not be suitable or acceptable in another.

For example, are you responding to falls calls with a complete ladder company because it’s available and/or nearest the incident? And are you getting considerable flak from the community because you’re using too many resources for such a simple call? Well, welcome to the concept of CRR. Choosing the right resources for emergencies is part of community risk reduction-but only part.

The tricky part is knowing when and where to apply which strategies. That will be determined at least in part by what kind of risks show up in the risk assessment, as there is (and should be) a link between them. So, if your number-one call producer is ground-level falls, don’t you think you should have some plan for dealing with it beyond response? And that a good plan doesn’t put all the eggs in one basket? And that multifaceted strategies are ultimately the most effective?

Instead of just one approach, wouldn’t a plan that includes a good emergency response capability, combined with an aggressive public education effort, and a partnership with public health officials and senior centers to get the word out on how to prevent falls be more effective?

And there is another level to consider. Isn’t the risk in one part of your community different from another? Consider that one station covers an industrial area. Another has many assisted-living centers, and a third covers residential property where recreational parks constitute a high percentage of call volume. That translates as frequent calls to the skate parks where the kids refuse to wear their helmets and knee and elbow pads.

Each risk is different, and each station might have a different risk-reducing strategies and employ their own mix and partnerships to mitigate the risks. One partners with senior centers to prevent falls and changes the deployment model to handle the frequent fallers without tying up all the emergency response resources. The station staffs an “aid car” with strong backs and longer response times so as not to put wear and tear on other emergency vehicles.

Another partners with schools and the parks department to promote and provide for helmets and other safety gear. And the third must staff for the infrequent but high-risk calls that constitute a target hazard for the community.

The community as a whole will likely have common strategies, with every station capable of handling regularly occurring fire and medical calls and sharing a common desire to ensure working smoke alarms. So balancing the needs of an individual station or response area against community wide risks is part of the art of developing a CRR plan.

In short, there is an emphasis in our CRR strategies to focus on station-based plans while balancing those plans against the risks that are managed in other ways.

Continued Training

We can’t expect firefighters to have the all of the expertise required for all aspects of our CRR plan. And it’s not just about shifting the work to firefighters because the community wants to cut back on more traditional prevention programs. We don’t want all firefighters conducting complex plan review or fire-code compliance inspections. Similarly, we can’t expect them to know everything about fire investigations or public education. Expertise in age-appropriate safety messaging, literacy levels, dealing with high-risk audiences, and the like will require a department to have specialized expertise in all the Es. That can mean more training and additional responsibilities for firefighters that move beyond the fireground.

But you needn’t worry-emergency response will always be part of the job. Still, we can do better at improving public safety, because we know other industrialized nations are doing so. And we need to be mindful that we’re always going to need specialized expertise in our more typical prevention bureaus (or whatever name they go by).

So if community risk reduction is a process that integrates all aspects of our operations, then it’s not just “prevention.” And it’s not just a name change. It’s not something that should make firefighters roll their eyes, because it is part of the core of what we do. Providing emergency response capabilities is admittedly the primary part of our risk management options. People form fire departments to get that kind of protection. But, especially in this day and age, emergency response is not the only answer to a given community’s risks.

But if you are considering a name change, you might consider that the entire department is actually involved in CRR. So, if anything, you might just consider changing the name of the entire fire department.

Then perhaps firefighters will get that it is part of their job-and not someone else’s.