Volunteer Firefighter International

How to Assess Community Risk

While there’s no one template for risk assessment, fire departments can take steps to get an accurate picture of their community’s threats

By Rick Markley

It’s a disservice to the community and its fire department to allocate fire and EMS resources without a concise understanding of the risks that community faces and prioritizing those risks.

Fire Chief Shane Crutcher told attendees at his community risk assessment session at the International Association of Fire Chief’s Volunteer, Combination Officers Section Symposium in the Sun that there was no one right way to build a risk assessment. But there are sound steps any volunteer department can take to identify and rank its threats.

Crutcher is fire chief on a U.S. Army base and has led a very rural department in his hometown. He cautions against thinking that you know where every hazard lies due to spending a long time in the community. He thought he knew what everyone did and what was in every barn in his town — that is, until he did a real risk assessment.

Now, the Army requires him to have a formal assessment and make annual updates to the base’s risk assessment. And that constant re-evaluation is one of the key components to a good risk assessment. It needs to be viewed as a living document, he says.

And as he learned in his hometown, solid risk assessment starts with solid data. “Data is key,” he says. “Community risk assessment cannot be an emotional document.”

That means making sure the line officers are entering good data into whatever reporting system the department is using. They must break the habit of making selections based on what auto populates the most and other short cuts that ultimately mask the department’s real response story.

A good starting point for any department is to fully understand the services it is obligated to provide. Carefully review all legal documents that layout what the fire department must do, he says. Many departments find that they are providing services that they are not legally allowed to do.

“Don’t chase what you are not supposed to be chasing,” he says. That, especially for departments with constrained resources, means they will likely be bad at providing those extra services as well as being bad at providing those basic legally obligated services.

A good risk assessment may reveal that the department is committing resources where they are not best used. Determine where the greatest risks are in the community and examine if the department’s resources are appropriately dedicated to facing those risks, he says. It may mean reallocating existing resources.

Once major risks are identified and prioritized, it is important to communicate those key risks to all the stakeholders in the community, he says. This will help the department understand and manage the expectations of its governing entity, whether that be a municipality, county board or fire commission.

Stakeholder buy-in is key to successfully implementing the risk assessment, he says. And, he cautions, if fire department officials “are not honest with their stakeholders, they will find you out.” Don’t overplay or downplay either the risks or the department’s ability to respond, he says.

When examining call history, it is important to look at both the frequency of the call types and their magnitude, he says. “Are we delivering the services we claim to?” he says. These hard questions can bring painful, but necessary answers. This call data examination also goes back to the indispensable value of quality data input from the start. In his current position, Crutcher says he examines calls by their type, time of day and day of week.

This level of examination may reveal the department lacks the needed resources to protect its community. It may also reveal that it has the resources, but they are misallocated. Either way, he says, departments need a formal and ongoing process to know where they stand.

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