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CRR challenges and opportunities presented by COVID-19

With more people at home, it’s important to maintain community risk reduction messages


The Orange County (California) Fire and Rescue hosts an educational program on its Facebook page where Captain Ben gives a virtual tour of the fire station, and in future episodes will take the audience through other aspects of firefighting, including up in a helicopter to explore how it helps in fire and rescue operations.

The current challenge in the fire service is focused on our response, mitigation and eventual recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

As such, most departments, like mine, have suspended our regular community risk reduction (CRR) programs for several reasons:

  • To follow health official guidelines that suspend large group gatherings, defined as any congregation of more than 10 people. This includes our department’s regularly scheduled events, such as child car seat installations or smoke detector canvases.
  • To lessen the incidental exposure to our personnel from citizens that may be asymptomatic but contagious to spread the virus, thus putting our response personnel at risk.
  • To reassign some of our CRR personnel to other duties, like increasing our response capabilities and redirecting their CRR efforts toward public service announcements (PSAs) or social media posts that remind citizens of their efforts to help combat both the spread of the virus and to lessen their physical and mental anxiety associated with the “Stay at Home” order that isolates families, and could especially affect smaller children out of school).

The irony to our cutback of CRR programs is that with people spending more time at home, the need for programs related to residential smoke detectors, fall prevention and cooking safety are more important than ever – yet harder to deliver.

How do we resolve this issue?

CRR solutions amid social distancing

Any fire department that wants to communicate safety messages to the public during the COVID-19 national emergency needs to be aware of Vision 2020’s CRR Network where users can sign up for forum updates. This site is a great forum for CRR practitioners as well as an informative bulletin board on how departments are educating the public during the pandemic. Participants can ask questions in the forum and share their own ideas with the group. Several examples of innovative ideas that I discuss below have come from CRR Network. Others have been directly from departments or individuals within my regular contacts.

As we review ideas, keep in mind that our CRR focus during these times is threefold:

  1. Our standard fire and life safety messages that remain important, especially during the “Stay at Home” phase;
  2. The COVID-19 information relevant directly to informing the public on the pandemic, as it affects them and their community; and
  3. The educational opportunities, especially those available for preschool and school-age children, which can be both informative and fun.

Let’s review CRR solutions for each.

Fire and life safety: Since the COVID-19 outbreak in southwest Ohio, our department had a serious residential structure fire that injured both an adult and a child, caused extensive damage to the home, and required the family of five to seek alternative housing. The fire was attributed to careless smoking, but more importantly, the residence had no working smoke alarms. This fire highlights the fact that our CRR efforts have to continue, but take a different form, while we deal with this virus.

Some tried-and-true methods are to continue to post messages about these issues on your department’s social media platforms. Keep these ideas conspicuously in the forefront, and underscore that it’s more important than ever to pay attention to the message, with renewed time at home.

Additionally, you can add links to your department’s website to CRR resources, like the IAFC’s Smart Choices for Smoke Alarm Placement program or the NFPA’s CRR news and research page. The NFPA also has an activity site for children.

COVID-19 updates: It’s important to show your community that the fire department is managing the crisis.

Post a Community Action Plan (CAP) on your department’s website and/or social media to help stem your citizens’ fears and anxiety – and answer questions, too. The CAP should include reminders that your fire and EMS, police and public works departments are geared to meet the service needs of the community, even during the crisis.

Your website can serve as both a clearinghouse of information from trusted sources, such as your local or state health department, as well as a point of reassurance that your city, township or county is still functioning and meeting the changing needs of the community. Two examples to check out are the websites for the City of Fishers, Indiana, and my community of Colerain Township.


Post photos of firefighters at the station holding signs that indicate they are practicing social distancing for good health.

Photo/Robert Rielage

Some of the ideas to help ease the anxiety in a community include:

  • Post photos of firefighters at the station holding signs that indicate they are practicing social distancing for good health, eating right and taking other precautions to keep themselves healthy and ready to respond to their emergency needs.
  • Post photos featuring a catchy slogan on the marquee sign of at a community park. For example, in Colerain, we have a sign that displays:

Roses are red, violets are blue

Enjoy the park but

Keep 6 ft. between you

Post video messages underscoring key messages. For example, the Huntington Beach (California) Fire Department uses its Facebook page to discuss the COVID-19 community threat in a one-minute video that urges the public to not call 911 unless facing a true medical or fire-related emergency.

Children’s education and entertainment: Although we are highly focused on COVID-19 right now, we must be mindful that educating children is still important – and let’s face it, many parents are seeking out any and all learning opportunities for kids now suddenly at home, without their regular educational activities. Here are some “cabin fever reliever” ideas:

  • Include links in your CAP to children’s educational videos and materials. Such materials not only to occupy the children’s time but also help them learn fire safety or science. Two examples are the NFPA’s Kids page, with Sparky the Dog learning opportunities for preschool through third grade as well as Underwriters Laboratory’s Middle School STEM programs for older kids.
  • The Orange County (California) Fire and Rescue hosts an educational program on its Facebook page where Captain Ben gives a virtual tour of the fire station, and in future episodes will take the audience through other aspects of firefighting, including up in a helicopter to explore how it helps in fire and rescue operations.

  • The Rocky Mountain Fire Department outside of Boulder, Colorado, holds a storytime each day on its Facebook page featuring a new book read aloud to children.

Use all your available resources

The key is to use your resources to inform and help your community cope during this unprecedented time. Don’t hesitate to borrow creative people from other departments within your city or town, especially those who may be working at home.

With all of us in public safety occupied in the direct fight against COVID-19, some of these ideas have come from folks in Parks and Recreation, IT or other departments not currently involved in direct service delivery.

Finally, share your ideas with other departments across the country. We are all in this together, and believe me, I have only touched on a few of the hundreds of ideas out there to help keep our communities protected.

Stay safe!

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers – USA Branch. He has served as a subject-matter expert, program coordinator and evaluator, and representative working with national-level organizations, such as FEMA, the USFA and the National Fire Academy. Rielage served as a committee member for NFPA 1250 and NFPA 1201. In 2019, he received the Ohio Fire Service Distinguished Service Award. Rielage is currently working on two books – “On Fire Service Leadership” and “A Practical Guide for Families Dealing with a Fire or Police LODD.” Connect with Rielage via email.