Risk management through community engagement

Understanding your community’s needs and creating custom community engagement plans by station


By Steven Knight, PhD

“I called for an ambulance. Why did you send a ladder truck to my house?” How often do we receive similar feedback from the communities we serve?

The department I was affiliated with provided first response paramedic level services for over 30 years, and I routinely heard our patients say, “Oh good; the paramedics are here,” when the ambulance arrived 10 minutes later.

It is important to re-align efforts through the community lens to ensure that there are commensurate service levels, as well as common marketing and messaging materials. (Photo/Joe Thomas Greenbox Photography)
It is important to re-align efforts through the community lens to ensure that there are commensurate service levels, as well as common marketing and messaging materials. (Photo/Joe Thomas Greenbox Photography)

While these comments may be familiar and even amusing at times, an important underlying message exists. How do we better articulate our messaging to the community? Is there an opportunity to customize our community engagement?

While it is appropriate to recognize that each community is unique as an aggregate, it is also important to recognize that each fire station area or neighborhood has its own unique interests and challenges that may not be replicated through the system’s lens. Underlying socioeconomic, demographic and cultural influences that could influence communication styles, messaging, expectations and potential risks may vary across neighborhoods.

For example, there may be more affluent areas that are culturally willing to assume more personal risk and have lower expectations for services than areas that are more reliant on community services. However, this same community may have high expectations for non-response related services, such as changing batteries in smoke detectors, presence at community functions and youth sporting events, and bicycle or water safety programs.

In contrast, there may be less affluent areas that are willing to invest heavily in protective services and have high expectations for response services with less value placed on preventative efforts. In other words, differences in risk tolerance can be mutually exclusive. Therefore, a tailored community engagement plan by each station area may have the most impact.

Understanding your community needs

There are two general approaches to understanding your unique community needs. First, become highly engaged with the community. Each community is different and the available community organizations may vary. In a broad sense, establishing relationships with the neighborhood associations, civic organizations, social outreach organizations and religious organizations is an excellent method to gain an informed feedback and communication loop with the community.

Second, conduct internal analyses on the community, both potential risks and actual historical events. In other words, a community risk evaluation may identify other risk factors exponentially more impactful to the community than just fire risks. For example, many communities may have far more injuries and fatalities per year due to vehicle accidents, drowning, ground level falls and pedestrian incidents than fire related and sudden cardiac arrest events.

In most communities, actual structure fire responses account for less than 3% of the overall call volume, and sudden cardiac arrests are often at 1%. Nearly all of our efforts, however, are associated with these two highly visible and sentinel events. Opportunities may exist to expand our current efforts into other areas and build on our historical successes in risk mitigation and education.

Assigning community engagement captains

Some of the more successful community engagement operations benefit from assigning responsibility for community engagement to a specific person. As there is no universal rank structure in the United States fire service, the rank is of less importance than the assignment and authority.

One example is to have each station have a “captain” assigned who is responsible for scheduling and overseeing community engagement activities within the demand zone or response area. Within this design, “lieutenants” would serve the other shifts. The same can be accomplished through assignments at any rank. Some communities may use a shift-based “battalion chief” if it is a smaller department.

Understanding that there is considerable flexibility in the actual rank structure, the benefit is derived from the assignment and responsibility to connect with the myriad of community groups available, as well as to assist in identifying historical risks such as pedestrian accidents or drownings.

The person assigned would coordinate with the department’s public education or community risk reduction division for additional resources, such as staff or marketing resources. Additionally, the assigned person would need to assign and/or schedule public engagement opportunities on the various shifts. This detailed neighborhood-centric approach would yield improved benefits over a community wide effort as programs are specifically aligned with the community needs.

Understanding risk reduction limitations

It is also important to understand our limitations in at least two manners. First, the fire service cannot eliminate all community risks. There are some risks that are wholly in our sphere of influence but other areas where we may only identify a need and then connect to external resources more appropriately positioned.

For example, the opioid crisis may not be best handled by the fire service as the lead agency. Emergency medical responses will help mitigate the risks associated in the aftermath of such an event. The fire service may not be the best agency to take point to address prevention efforts but could serve as an excellent collaborative partner with other agencies.

Second, we have to be organizationally cognizant and honest about the limitations to deliver public presentations and to possess the political acumen to be successful. We all have strengths and weaknesses; not all firefighters can provide the detail, sensitivity and passion for risk reduction efforts. Administration must discern the difference between capability and planned obsolescence for public education and community risk reduction efforts.

Community risk reduction at 30,000 feet

Thus far, the focus has been on the value of a tailored engagement in the individual neighborhood or station response areas. It is important to re-align efforts through the community lens to ensure that there are commensurate service levels, as well as common marketing and messaging materials. With limited resources, the neighborhood level approach has a better opportunity to garnish the greatest return on investment of efforts. As resources and/or time become available, however, it is no less important to provide this service in other areas with less risk or less frequency.

About the author

Steven Knight, Ph.D., is the fire service practice lead and partner at the public safety consulting firm, Fitch & Associates. Contact him at sknight@fitchassoc.com

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