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Are you a true public safety agency or merely a post-incident response agency?

Without a commitment to community risk reduction, your fire department can’t tout its role in the public safety business


“Are we doing anything to understand the risks in our communities?” Horton writes.

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I sometimes hear chiefs say their department does community risk reduction (CRR) – they “gave it to the Fire Prevention Office.” Now this is not a knock to the fire prevention officials; they are a capable group and an important part of the CRR agenda. However, CRR goes far beyond the prevention team.

CRR should be baked into the organizational philosophy of every fire department. After all, our mission statements typically include words like “save lives and property,” but what exactly does that mean in the context of CRR engagement and implementation?

Does it mean saving a life currently being threatened? That would be our conventional, reactive approach to service delivery. What about preventing a life from being threatened in the first place?

The Department of Homeland Security was founded in 2002 with a mission to prevent threats against our country. Would we deem their work a success if Homeland Security officers simply waited for terrorist events to occur? I certainly hope not. We expect them to turn over every rock to identify risks that would threaten the safety of our communities and work to reduce that risk.

So why would we not approach the fire department’s role in the community with the same vigor to prevent a threat instead of only responding to it after the fact? We must. And how do we achieve this? By working to reduce risk.

How are we defining risk? Maybe a better question is simply: Are we doing anything to understand the risks in our communities?

I offer that the fire service role in the community is to manage the risk of bad outcomes. Seems like a logical connection to a service that claims to be “all hazards” in focus. Only when we embrace risk management efforts can we truly tout our role in the public safety business; otherwise, we are merely a post-incident response agency.

CRR is not a program or budgetary line item. It is a fundamental philosophy of the fire department, and it starts with the fire chief’s understanding of community risk and their communications about risk, both internal and external to the organization.

Yes, the Fire Prevention office is part of CRR. So are the emergency response units, the administrative team, the IT department, facilities management, and so on. If you are conjuring up images of the moving story of President John F. Kennedy asking the janitor what his role was at NASA to hear the response, “Mr. President, I’m helping to put a man on the moon,” you are getting it. Every member of your organization has a role and responsibility for CRR, especially the emergency responders. After all, they will encounter more community members, many in their homes or places of business, than any other employee in the fire department.

CRR starts with establishing relationships with stakeholder groups, elected leaders and neighborhood groups. It means engaging with your community members, ensuring that they have a loud voice in the conversation of the fire department service delivery model – think community-driven strategic planning. It means conducting a data-driven community risk assessment looking at variables such as frequency and impact, and targeting risk reduction strategies to lower both the frequency and potential impact of these risks.

In Oregon, we identified two risks to the quality of life of our citizens – falls in the home and wildfires.

  • To address fall risks, we inserted a series of interventions that included a community care response program where our providers did home assessments and connected the at-risk population with free fall-prevention resources provided by a community partner agency.
  • For wildfire, we reduced friction for property owners by providing resources and options to remove hazardous vegetation from their property.

Both programs received overwhelming support from the community and experienced a measurable impact in reducing those risks. It’s not rocket science; it’s risk management – and it must be a priority at all levels.

Fire chiefs, it is your job to own CRR at the highest level. This means organizing your fire department around analyzing and mitigating your community’s risk. It means embracing a culture of risk reduction throughout your community. All employees in the organization need to be trained in the value of CRR. It is through this ideology that you will save lives and contribute to the safety of the public you serve.

Chief Bob Horton (ret.) is the Senior Director for Research and Policy for the Western Fire Chiefs Association. Prior to this role, he was the fire chief for Fire District 3 in Jackson County, Oregon. Horton is a panelist on the Fire Headlines Podcast and is host of the podcast, Assuming Command, featuring thought leaders, influencers and innovators in public service. Connect with him on LinkedIn.