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Q&A: The fire department role in identifying and mitigating community hazards

Chief Michael O’Brian describes the biggest risk management issues facing the fire service – and where progress can be made

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Michael O’Brian is fire chief of the Brighton Area (Michigan) Fire Authority and the Fire & Life Safety Section representative on the IAFC Board of Directors.

Risk management is an almost overwhelming term when it comes to fire service applications. Firefighters are tasked with a range of life safety-focused duties, from educating the public about smoke alarms to identifying potential health risks in the community to responding to a host of all-hazards emergencies when they do occur. The variety of prevention and mitigation tasks is enormous.

Fire Chief connected with Michael O’Brian – fire chief of the Brighton Area (Michigan) Fire Authority, and the Fire & Life Safety Section representative on the IAFC Board of Directors – about the major fire and life safety issues facing the fire service today, and how fire chiefs, company officers and firefighters all play a critical role in community risk reduction (CRR). What do you think are the biggest risk management issues facing the fire service today?

Chief O’Brian: When the data is evaluated, most fire service agencies are going to identify an EMS-related issue near the top of their risk management list, purely due to the significant run volume. The EMS response is not as clear in reducing the impact on the organization as it can be in reducing false fire alarms or even fires in a community. It would be shortsighted to not indicate that home fires remain an issue facing most fire departments in working to reduce the impact of fire on their communities.

What do you see as the role of fire chiefs in community risk reduction?

For progressive fire chiefs, CRR must be a critical daily function. The community expects the fire service to be finding means that reduce the impact of emergency response in their lives. The fire chief must continually be charting a path, setting the vision and the standards the organization must be working toward achieving. In order to meet those goals, the fire chief must be the lead in building relationships that strengthen CRR efforts. It cannot be done just in the fire chief’s office or just in the fire department, though; it must be bigger than the fire service to ultimately make an impact.

What about company officers?

Our company officers are the true engine of the organization. Every day they are leading the men and women who are making real changes in our citizens life. They are responsible for so many tasks, primarily ensuring our firefighters go home at the end of the shift to solving complex problems in a very short time frame.

Early on, the organization relies heavily on the feedback from company officers and what they see on incident responses as well as what they need. We have really strong company officers who work really hard to make sure our staff is exceeding the customers’ expectations while working to make sure incidents stay small – or do not occur at all.

What is the firefighter role in risk management and CRR?

Our firefighters have such passion that is shown each day they come in for a run or work a shift. Firefighters love helping people. The interesting part is at times they can push on the mission of CRR, although leaders who collectively give them the tools and set the path seem to meet the goal of helping people and come up with some creative solutions. When we engage our firefighters, they always impress me with what they are able to accomplish.

Do you see risk management efforts as something that’s more reactive or proactive for fire departments?

Great question and a bit tricky. Most of our risk management is based on a problem that is occurring and we seek to find ways to limit it occurring again. Take for instance a reduction in false alarms. If we work with our code enforcement and inspection staff to reduce false alarms based on what our firefighters and company officers are doing, it’s very much reactive to what was presented to us.

Now, we can be very proactive and make sure our future buildings do not fall into this cycle. Through quality plan review, proper construction inspections and enforcing ITM (inspection, testing and maintenance) on a system, we can hopefully make sure false alarms are reduced on new construction and is very proactive.

What can you tell me about the Fire and Life Safety Section’s approach to risk management?

The Fire and Life Safety Section is active with Vision 20/20 in working to set the national objectives while finding ways to continue to promote CRR. With that, the section has always felt we need to provide fire chiefs with tools to make risk management a reality at the local level. Our conference in 2019 had the main objective of developing leadership in CRR. So the question of the section is this: Can we provide our members and fire chiefs the tools and education they need before they know they need it?

What are the top three risk management issues facing metropolitan areas?

The use of CRR is typically based on local data and can change in each community and within each area. Many of our organizations, regardless of demographic, are seeing a few big things:

Each community will have a different need based on what their data shows. For instance, a Midwest town may be struggling with vacant structure fires, while a Western community may need to address a WUI concern. The needs are truly specific to what is occurring in a community

How can volunteer departments address CRR issues in an effective and comprehensive manner?

In the same way as any fire department. Some of our smaller departments may have to lean on regional data to determine where the efforts would be focused, although it’s almost more critical for a smaller fire department to have a solid plan, so efforts and funding can be specific in one or two areas.

How are building codes involved in risk management efforts?

Truly the built environment and engineering can work to reduce fires and incidents in buildings. Modern building codes have included residential sprinklers now for over 6 years, and communities that are using non-modified building codes are seeing drastic decreases in the impact of fire in those structures. It’s carried beyond fire – homes with better stairways lead to less trips and falls, resulting in medical emergencies, and the building code can really help protect students in schools. The code is a tool that is a great means for reducing risk in a community.

What messages can you share about the role of firefighters (any level) in fire sprinkler protection?

Firefighters are expected to be experts in anything, and that starts with fire, from fire extinguishers to smoke alarms and fire sprinklers. We do a poor job in basic fire academies in developing firefighter skills in CRR and fire sprinklers. Organizations must take time to educate our staff on fire sprinklers so they can advocate when approached by the public. It also truly aids them in keeping incidents small, when firefighters understand the capabilities and limitations of systems.

Janelle Foskett is the editor-in-chief of, responsible for defining original editorial content, tracking industry trends, managing expert contributors and leading execution of special coverage efforts. She also serves as the co-host of FireRescue1’s Better Every Shift podcast. Foskett joined the Lexipol team in 2019 and has nearly 20 years of experience in fire service media and publishing. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo and a certificate in technical communications from the University of California, San Diego. Ask questions or submit ideas via email.