Engaging Firefighters in Community Risk Reduction

For years, many of my peers have been saying that getting firefighters to embrace fire prevention is the only way we’re going to make significant progress in our field. We know that a better fire loss record is possible because other industrialized nations (notably the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia) do a better job of preventing fires than we do here in the United States. But thus far, making a significant impact on fire loss in recent years has proven difficult.

We should never forget that the same tools that apply to fire prevention also work for other injury-control efforts. Engineering, enforcement and educational tools that mitigate fire loss work just as well for reducing falls by the elderly, enhancing bicycle safety and even preventing heart disease. (If you think that educating people about the proper diet and exercise regimen can’t have an impact on that particular problem, then you haven’t been paying attention to the cultural change in our society regarding smoking.) This “force-multiplier” aspect of community risk reduction is another reason we should make it a priority. 

But with prevention still one of the most vulnerable fire service programs, how do we engage firefighters in community risk reduction?

Needed: Firefighters
The Vision 20/20 project has been working with a number of fire departments around the country to involve firefighters in identifying high-risk areas, arranging for home safety visits and making sure families have working smoke alarms. Part of this effort is attempting to instill within the department the value of such activities, so that they will continue over the long term. To be sure, other partners—such as burn centers, visiting nurses and additional non-profits—are vital to our efforts. But the emphasis here is in getting firefighters to own safety solutions that go beyond emergency response, because if we don’t do it, others will. This new methodology builds upon the premise that fire station leaders can become successful risk managers and facilitators for their communities.

Some departments really “get it,” as do their firefighters; in these departments, the chances appear good that these efforts will be institutionalized over time. In others, frankly, I fear that when leadership changes or federal funding ends, the department will resort to its old habits and become what we once described as a “stealth fire department”—one in which the crews remain hidden behind closed doors until the call for emergency help comes in.

Remaining hidden is something we can no longer afford. Getting out of the station and into the community not only helps us reduce community risk, it also increases our interactions with potential supporters of public safety services, giving them exposure to us that they would never otherwise have. The fire departments that embrace these concepts best will have the greatest chance of engendering community support.

Building Engagement
Engaging firefighters in community risk reduction requires recognition and support from the very top of the department, but even that will only last as long as the head of that respective department is in place. A new chief, with new opinions, can undo years of effort and kill a successful program quickly. Firefighters must believe that community risk reduction isn’t just a fad or a way to make the chief look good.

To truly instill the value of these concepts long term, training is critical, as firefighters will legitimately complain about doing anything without the skills or tools to do it well. Long-term hiring and promotion practices that reward community risk reduction skills can go a long way toward institutionalizing them, too. And we need to dispel the myth that embracing prevention strategies will eliminate jobs—in our lifetime, they won’t. In fact, amid cuts to fire departments everywhere, budget support has emerged in a few small pockets where the fire service is embracing prevention and risk reduction.

Perhaps most critical in the effort to engage firefighters in prevention: the involvement of the IAFF. It is the most powerful advocate for the fire service because of its sheer membership numbers (approximately 300,000 members) and the political funds and energy it can muster at the local, state, regional and national levels.

I was recently invited to attend two prevention-related projects at the IAFF headquarters, where the organization is initiating programs to increase prevention efforts nationally. One IAFF project focuses on increasing the involvement of the fire service in the development, adoption and use of modern fire and building codes and standards. The horsepower behind this project, including active participation by both the NFPA and the International Code Council, is impressive and bodes well for successful implementation of the strategies discussed.

The second project is a task group working to establish the foundation of a national database for juvenile firesetting behaviors. Statistics indicate that local intervention programs have helped reduce juvenile firesetting incidents, but the truth is, many of the incidents go unreported and we really don’t know the full scope of the national problem.

The collaborative approach of both of these projects—which are supported by an AFG grant for prevention programs—is possible because the IAFF asked other people and organizations to participate. When I attended the meetings, I observed excellent indicators of partnership. And the IAFF leadership in attendance at those meetings voiced a high level of understanding and support for firefighters engaging in station outreach activities that improve safety and raise our visibility in the community.

The IAFF’s concern about and commitment to fire prevention and community risk reduction is a very powerful message in and of itself. The need in our tough economic times has never been greater.

Focus on the Long Term
Suppression and prevention firefighters who are involved in community risk reduction understand its value. Of course, they cannot know everything there is to know about the field—much like hazmat or EMS, specialized expertise is needed for more complex prevention problems.

But long term, we in the fire service community must support balanced mitigation strategies that actively incorporate firefighters into the mix—in bad times and good, and through changing administrations—if we are to maintain a high level of public safety and the respective community support for our services.