The effects of natural and manufactured disasters have become more frequent, far-reaching and widespread than ever before. As a result, preserving the safety, security and prosperity of all elements of our society is becoming more challenging to fire departments. The traditional approach to managing the risks associated with these disasters and emergencies relies heavily on all levels of government to prepare for, mitigate, respond to and recover from them.
However, today's changing reality of depending solely on government agencies is affecting all levels of the fire service's emergency response in the efforts to improve our resilience. Even in small- and medium-sized community response, significant command and control and overall service gaps still exist.
Accelerating changes in demographic trends and technology make managing the effects of disasters more complex. As we witnessed in Hurricane Sandy and recent wildland fires, government resources and capabilities at all levels can be overwhelmed quickly during large-scale disasters or catastrophes.
One trend affecting emergency fire/EMS response is the continued population shifts into vulnerable areas, such as hurricane-prone coastlines or the wildland-urban interface. The economic development that creates these shifts increases the demands on local services, including fire.
In addition, demographic changes continue to affect fire and EMS management activities, such as a growing population of people with disabilities living in communities instead of institutions, as well as people living with chronic health conditions, such as obesity and asthma. Communities are also facing a growing senior population entering this demographic group. Fire/EMS leaders are experiencing higher call volumes for falls and other injuries common to senior populations.
If immigration trends continue as predicted, cities and suburbs will be more diverse ethnically and linguistically. Employment trends, when combined with new technologies, can be expected to shift how local residents plan their home-to-work commuting patterns as well as their leisure time.
All of these trends will affect how residents organize and identify with community-based organizations and will influence how they prepare for and respond to emergencies, regardless of scope and size.
The Whole Community approach and Community Risk Reduction (CRR) are means by which residents, fire service leaders, emergency-management practitioners, organizational and community leaders and government officials can collectively understand and assess the needs of their respective communities and determine the best way to organize and strengthen assets, capacities and interests. By doing so, a more effective path to societal safety, security and resilience is built.
In the United States, there are many different kinds of communities, including communities of place, interest, belief and circumstance, which can exist both geographically and virtually (i.e., in online forums). A Whole Community approach attempts to engage the full capacity of the private and nonprofit sectors, including businesses, faith-based and disability organizations, and the general public, in conjunction with the participation of local, tribal, state, territorial and federal government partners.
There's no organization better positioned than the fire service to lead this effort. In an all-hazards environment, individuals and their fire departments will make different decisions on how to prepare for and respond to threats and hazards; therefore, a community's level of preparedness will vary.
To maximize preparedness, the challenge for those in fire service leadership is to understand how to work with the diverse groups and organizations to develop policies and practices that meet local needs and increase community resilience.
The benefits of Whole Community and CRR activities include:
- A more informed, shared understanding of community risks, needs and capabilities
- An increase in resources through the empowerment of community members
- In the end, more resilient communities
The task of cultivating and sustaining relationships to incorporate the whole community can be challenging; however, the investment yields many dividends.
A more sophisticated understanding of a community's needs and capabilities also leads to a more efficient use of existing resources, regardless of the size of the incident or community constraints. In times of resource and economic constraints, the pooling of efforts and resources across the whole community is a way to compensate for budgetary pressures, not only for government agencies but also for many private and nonprofit sector organizations.
In building relationships and learning more about the complexity of community interdependencies, there may be sources of hidden vulnerabilities revealed. Steps taken to engage the whole community before an incident occurs will add capacity available for response and recovery efforts. Community partners may provide additional resources in support of the overall emergency preparedness effort. The Whole Community approach produces more-effective outcomes for all threats and hazards, thereby improving security and resiliency nationwide.