October 9, 2016, begins National Fire Prevention Week. And much like Health and Safety Week in June, it’ll likely pass by with little fanfare, notwithstanding any programs your fire department has in store. I’m not being dismissive about this great and necessary week; rather, I’m trying to make the point that fire prevention has taken a quantum leap in terms of its meaning. This leap has changed fire prevention into its contemporary progeny-community risk reduction (CRR).
Until a few years ago, most firehouses-and fire departments, for that matter-considered public education outside of its formal setting or dedicated bureau delivery to be the responsibility of the company’s junior member to do the talking at the neighborhood school, put on the costume for the kids, and handle it all as a rite of passage. We all knew this was a lackadaisical approach to getting the message out, but reading fire prevention stories to kids, explaining how to get out of their home when it’s on fire, and showing them what we look like all dolled up in our bunker gear was all we had. We knew of the many programs out there, but those were left to our public education bureaus to manage and deliver. And these bureaus are (were) always understaffed and undersupported in delivering what the community needs and wants. But we’ve finally realized what reducing the impact of fire looks like, based on what our community looks like.
As we begrudgingly delve into all things Big Data, we are starting to peel back the layers of our community beyond simply analyzing how many fires we go to and their resulting death and injury and property loss. CRR is now the term we use to describe this “peeling back,” and it’s starting to show us a much clearer and objective picture of our communities’ fire problems. I’m not necessarily referring to socioeconomics-rather, understanding infrastructure, housing vintage and trends, historical events and incident types, and population, to name a few. In the dawning age of predictive analytics, we’re able to conduct minute-by-minute planning, deployment, and CRR strategies to minimize or prevent risk to our communities. What does this all mean to that junior firefighter in the firehouse getting his bunker gear off of the rig to put on in front of the kids, again? Everything.
As we understand the risk scoring and other vulnerabilities of our neighborhoods, firefighters at the response level become armed with information. Information is king in any occupation where you’re headed into an environment that wants to kill or harm you or fellow citizens. And, with it, you’ll understand the enemy better. Consider the impact that vacant structures have in your community. I’m not just referring to the shopworn “broken windows” theories regarding their blight and propensity to attract criminal and nefarious elements, but rather their propensity to attract fire. As the police seek to prevent their use for illegal activities, we seek to prevent incendiary events and emergency medical services runs to these addresses. Knowing where the vacants are, whether they’re on the demolition list, and past break ins can only be achieved through data input and the outcome of driving the engine or ladder company by them or stopping to check their hazards out. Moreover, the community seeing fire personnel investigating these structures provides a sense of oversight by local government and has been shown to reduce criminal behavior. There are lots of fire departments that are working with neighborhood services, police departments, and public works departments to identify these properties so that firefighters are forearmed and ready.
And when it comes to the conventional importance of smoke detectors, geospatial data will allow fire departments to hit every address in the community and address grant areas more efficiently. Virtually every city uses geographic information systems to analyze data points to make predictions and ensure coverage of city services. Analyzing incident history to pinpoint critical areas that have not been reached by public education bureau contacts or have had fire companies check and install smoke detectors will ensure that we get measurable and repeatable outcomes with occupant evacuation, detector alerts, etc. Furthermore, anecdotally assuming an area has higher incidences of fires does not tell the whole story. Let’s embrace the future of CRR and give everyone an objective outcome and fair shake with our public education and CRR endeavors. Let’s make that kid putting on his gear for the kids know that what he’s doing is simply exposing the community to what we look like, do, and want them to do to make themselves safer. That’s because that young firefighter will already know where the greatest risks lie in his area.