Risky Business

When I started in the fire service as a volunteer while still in high school, I had no idea where my career would ultimately take me. All that mattered was when the pager would activate the next time—no care whatsoever how a fire would impact those affected. 

What changed my attitude? Training? Experience? Mentoring? Changing culture? I think each of these played a role in the transformation. More on this later.

The idea of completing a risk assessment for your department–no matter the size–can seem like an enormous task. Even the phrase “Risk Assessment” can seem daunting to many. So, what should be your first steps? The reason for a risk assessment is to prevent or mitigate an unwanted event prior to it occurring. That is simple enough but should be focused on reducing risks and ultimately keeping firefighters and the public safe. 

When developing a risk assessment, your job is to define the characteristics of the response area or overall jurisdiction. An important concept is to remember that one portion of your district is likely to be different from the other, and you must plan accordingly.

Understanding community demographics is necessary to implement risk reduction strategies to improve outcomes. To locate population and socio-economic characteristics, you can begin with U.S. Census data readily available from their website. If the location has a population greater than 5,000, you can use their QuickFacts data for race and Hispanic origin, housing, families and living arrangements, education, income, health, and Internet usage. 

Why would Internet access matter? If you target a specific population through online methods and find out they do not have Internet access, you may need to reconsider how to reach that group. 

Recent hurricanes and wildfires generated media attention nationally and should cause your organization to assess emergency operations and recovery plans for natural disasters. Understanding the risk will provide information to make local decisions on how to prepare prior to an event. Do you know the flooding risk from storm surge and the after-effects? Do you understand the topography, types of fuels, weather conditions, and ember intrusion for wildfires? Are you developing mitigation plans for either type of incident?  

What happens if a community loses energy sources to operate electrical or natural gas services? Do you or your community have a plan for extended electrical failure to operate fire stations or traffic signals? Where to you get fuel for fire apparatus if you are cut off because of flooding, and no deliveries are available? Do you have continuity of operations plans if you must vacate a fire station? Because I live in a hurricane-prone area, we understand the risks and why the planning process is so important.  

When working on a risk assessment, do you include available water for firefighting purposes? How do you know if you have enough water to meet fire flow requirements if you are not flow testing hydrants?  

Internet access for underserved populations has been discussed but what happens when communication is lost from the 911 Center or cellular access is nonexistent? How are you able to communicate during a response, and are backup procedures in place?

Many different types of transportation systems may pass through our communities. Whether it is a controlled-access freeway or a rural dirt road, we need to understand the potential risks. It does not matter if you are in an urban or rural area, knowing the closest water supply location is a must. Do you have rail lines operating through your community, and where are all the crossings that may impact response? Are there bridges that have weight restrictions or are considered obsolete? Is there an airport or landing strip that will impact the community if there is an accident involving an aircraft? 

We have all heard of target hazards, but do you have a complete inventory of these occupancies to rate the risk(s)? What issues involving schools and daycares may impact an incident not only for emergency responders but also for students, teachers, and parents? Other target hazards include hospitals, nursing homes, outside festivals, restaurants, multifamily properties, and facilities that produce or store hazardous materials. 

In each of the examples, have you built a working relationship with the business or facility? These relationships provide an opportunity to develop strategic and tactical plans for a pre-incident survey or assist in preventing or mitigating an event. Remember, pre-incident planning is designed for operations personnel to become familiar with their first-in response area and its hazards and not just assigned to the fire inspector!

Where do you find all the information needed for a community risk assessment? A starting point should be your local hazard mitigation plan that should list the primary environmental risks. It will provide a ranking of the most hazardous or common risks in your community and demographic information in many cases. If your organization does not have a GIS analyst, ask your local governmental agency to assist if maps are needed. 

Ask yourself, “Does your department review its incident data regularly?” If the answer is “yes,” you already have a head start. If not, how do you know if your incident data is accurate? As we all know, most firefighters do not like completing reports, but without high-quality data, the information will not provide correct guidance in the decision-making process.

Intuitively most firefighters already know where their hazards are located but writing it down for others to learn is another matter. The Center for Public Safety Excellence provides an excellent publication, Community Risk Assessment: Standards of Cover. Even if you seek accreditation, the book provides a step-by-step process to guide your organization through a risk assessment process. Vision 20/20 also has A Guide for Conducting a Community Risk Assessment. 

Lastly, what do we do with all this information? Most importantly, it does not need to sit on a shelf. The data collected should be used in developing risk reduction strategies to prevent or mitigate an incident from occurring. Does your organization have a strategic or master plan that maps out the future, especially if the community is growing? Knowing the risks can demonstrate the need for new apparatus, fire stations, or personnel. It can also be used to develop a station-based risk reduction program. 

Why do I care about a community risk assessment now compared to the beginning of my fire service career? Personally, my attitude changed because of training, experience, mentoring, and finally, the transformation of the organization’s culture. Ultimately, knowing the different hazards can provide your organization a process to prevent or mitigate an incident from occurring and increase firefighter safety. 

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