By Dave Donohue
Scenario: Your station has been detailed to provide a presentation to a homeowner’s group in your community. This is part of the new fire chief’s plan to expand community risk reduction (CRR) activities by line companies. As is typically done, you assign the task to the newest member of the company, a firefighter who has been out of the training academy for three months. The shift following the presentation, you receive a phone call from the assistant chief requesting details on the presentation and what was shared with the community. According to the assistant chief, there was a complaint that the presentation was poorly presented, contained incorrect information, and missed the mark.
CRR activities are the core of the fire and emergency services and involve the entire spectrum of activities the fire service usually performs. From performing morning regular equipment checks to an emergency response and on to performing public education and smoke alarm installation, the business of fire and emergency responders is to reduce risk to the community and ourselves. Expanding community-based risk reduction efforts, such as conducting home safety surveys, installing smoke alarms, and providing public education, is effective at reducing the risk to responders and members of the community. This article will discuss the importance of CRR activities, demonstrate the impact on the community, and describe actions to increase participation in these programs.
Why CRR Matters
In 1972, the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration indicated that fires in the home were the second most frequent cause of accidental death in the United States. By 2009, and over 40 years of CRR activities ranging from aggressive to nonexistent, fire remained the second most frequent cause of accidental death in the United States, killing about 4,000 people and injuring more than 381,000 every year. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the cost of preventable injury and death because of fires and burns is more than $244 billion with two million life years lost each year. While the fire service made great strides in reducing the incidence of home fires beginning in 1977, there has been little change since 1997.
And while the total number of fire deaths has decreased during that same time period, the number of injuries per fire, which had declined from 1980 through the mid-1990s, has risen to levels similar to the introduction of large-scale efforts by fire departments to reduce the rate of fire, injury, and death.
While there have been great strides at the local level, with some very successful CRR programs, from a national level there has been little change in the total number of home fires over the past 20 years, and the number of injuries, per fire, has risen significantly. During the time period since 1977, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has recalled more than 1,000 home products because of fire hazards, which has contributed to the reduction in home fires. This means that the fire service cannot take full credit for the reduction in home fires during that time period as homes have become, to some degree, safer.
Are Firefighter IIs Trained to Conduct CRR Activities?
As part of the Executive Fire Officer program, research was conducted that examined the recruit training programs of fire departments and state fire training agencies regarding the level of CRR training provided to firefighter candidates during initial training. NFPA 1001, Standard for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications, which provides standards for Firefighter I and II training, requires that Firefighter II personnel be trained to provide home safety surveys and conduct a variety of fire safety public education. The survey revealed that more than half of the respondents did not provide CRR training, as per NFPA 1001, during the recruit training process. Of those departments that do provide training, the training time runs from approximately one hour of training to 32 hours. However, there is not a standardized curriculum taught across the departments, with some departments spending the bulk of the training hours conducting training on car safety seat installation.
A second survey of fire service instructors, with 50 respondents, revealed that the instructors routinely deleted CRR training from the curricula to focus on other material in the course. Reasons cited included the lack of time to teach materials, the lack of follow on testing tied to CRR, and the need to “focus on more important skills and tasks.” So, while offering CRR training during recruit training coupled with aggressive, company level CRR activities appears to be effective in reducing the rate of fire, fire injury, and fire death in the community, many firefighters are entering the field unable to meet the competencies associated with this facet of the profession. As a result, the ability to successfully perform CRR education and activities is greatly limited in field personnel assigned to perform these tasks.
Does Community Risk Reduction Matter?
For fire service organizations, the ultimate questions when facing reduced budgets and resource shortages are whether CRR activities matter and what the impact is of ending these activities when faced with budget shortfalls.
The research conducted examined departments that conduct CRR training during initial training and conduct risk reduction activities in the field, specifically home safety surveys as described by NFPA 1001, as well as those that do not. In addition, the research also examined the impact on a community when a nationally recognized CRR program was discontinued. This research used surveys from members of the departments and an analysis of National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) data encompassing the years 2011 through 2015.
Of the communities examined, of the three with the greatest rate of home fire per capita, two, Hagerstown, Maryland, and Toledo, Ohio, did not conduct home safety surveys on a regular, targeted, communitywide basis, although some respondents conducted occasional or ad-hoc home safety surveys or smoke detector installation programs. Similar results were found when examining the rate of injuries per home fire and deaths per home fire on a per capita basis, with rates higher in communities that do not conduct home safety surveys of similar, active outreach.
Of special interest was the Hagerstown Fire Department. In fiscal year 2011, the fire department altered a nationally recognized CRR program and, as part of the research, an examination of the impact of this decision on the fire problem in Hagerstown was conducted to see if there would be an increase in fires following the action.
This allowed the analysis of the impact of CRR in reverse, demonstrating if the program was effectively reducing the rate of home fires in the community. From 2009 through 2015, the rate of residential structure fires in Hagerstown increased by more than 100 percent, with a steady rise noted following the changes in the community-based program. A similar increase in the rate of injury during residential structure fires was also noted.
Hagerstown is not alone in being forced to reduce its operating budget and selecting to reduce CRR as a means of doing so. However, the community-based program was a model program that many communities sought to emulate.
This provided an excellent model to reflect the impact of CRR activities on the community.
Recommendations and Actions
Much has been written about the importance of CRR on the nation and the need for the fire service to embrace and champion activities in the community. Many communities in the United States have readily embraced the challenge and made significant strides in reducing the impact of fire on their citizens. However, there is a lack of standardized training for firefighters in CRR, which is reflected in their capabilities and actions on entering active service. The failure to train members of the fire service in the core responsibility of reducing risk within the community and the failure of the fire service as a whole to embrace and act to reduce community risk can no longer be considered acceptable. To this end, this article recommends several actions be reviewed and acted on.
1. The testing for Firefighter II candidates should accurately and adequately reflect all the requirements of NFPA 1001, including the risk-reduction components. Firefighter II personnel should be indoctrinated in CRR activities and expected to actively participate in communitywide, organized risk reduction activities.
2. Federal grant funding should include a mitigation component, similar to Stafford Act and Hazard Mitigation Grant Programs. Current Assistance to Firefighter Grant criteria has responder safety as a core element and CRR is a core element of improving responder safety. Federal grant programs should include a provision whereby 10 percent of the grant funds shall be earmarked for CRR activities. For example, if a fire department receives $350,000 for a fire engine, they include as part of their grant proposal a CRR program that is funded up to $35,000. If there is not a CRR component, the request is given a lower priority and, if funded, the funding is reduced by an equal amount and supplements other approved programs. Similarly, grant programs that address staffing include CRR training and a requirement that 10 percent of the personnel time be dedicated to CRR activities during the life of the grant.
3. Expand the federal Hazard Mitigation Grant Program to include CRR activities related to fires. While wildland fire risk reduction is already a component of the program, expanding the program funding and including categories related to residential fire safety will reduce the impact of home fires on communities and provide additional funding for reduction programs.
4. Improve and reward partnerships that address CRR. Both the American Red Cross and Department of Housing and Urban Development are actively involved in reducing risk in the community. By partnering with these and other community-based organizations, fire departments can expand their CRR capabilities while reducing the economic impact on the department.
5. Ensure that CRR is embraced and actively pursued at the company and station level. CRR is an essential core responsibility and function of the fire service and needs to be embraced and championed throughout the organization—especially at the lowest levels. Company level personnel should be encouraged to pursue activities, including home safety surveys and public education, as a means to reduce community risk and improve firefighter safety.
Dave Donohue, MA, CEM, EMT-P, is the owner of Mid-Atlantic Emergency and Safety Consultants, LLC. He has more than 35 years of emergency services and management experience and has served in fire service emergency management roles at federal, state, and local levels as well as private industry. Donohue is a member of the Community Volunteer Fire Company, District 12, located in Fairplay, Maryland. He can be reached at email@example.com.