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Fire Prevention: It Takes a Community

As the fire services continues to take the brunt of the economic downturn, there is no doubt that prevention is now not only a backseat of many fire departments, but hitchhiking along the side of the road.

If fire departments are doing any prevention at all, they are being done with great sacrifice, limited resources, and many times by only one or two individuals. But the end result will remain the same - the fire problem will get worse and our firefighters continuing to be put at preventable risk.

Just as the saying goes "it takes a village to raise a child," so does "It takes a community to be safe."

For fire departments to increase their prevention success, it is important to get the help and support of the community to generate audiences and deliver effective programs. There is no need to go at it alone.

The scenario: You are the company officer and are seeing a high incident of fires being set at a local community housing development in your first-due district in the early evenings on the weekdays. The fires are escalating and recently have involved structures.

Bystanders have told your firefighters they believe the fires are being set by the children in the development who seem to be running around unsupervised. Your department lacks full-time resources to address this issue, and while no injuries have resulted, you know it is just a matter of time before it does so you decide to get involved. But you are a one person show. What difference can you make?

The first step in addressing this issue from a community involvement aspect is to identify who the stakeholders are.

In this scenario, the stakeholders here are not only the juveniles and their families, but also the owners of the housing complex, law enforcement, school system, court system, insurance companies, possibly social services, water department, environmental groups due to pollutants caused by fires and damage to shrubbery, etc.

The key to finding your stakeholders is to think beyond the immediate problem at hand. Think outside the box, and be creative as many of the stakeholders may not even realize they are being impacted or could be impacted.

You may need to explain and demonstrate their role to get their involvement.

Once your stakeholders are identified, you need to decide if you want to address this problem utilizing a community-based approach through partnerships or a coalition.

It is imperative that you understand the differences and intricacies of each as failure to do so will result in not only failing to address the immediate problem, but also being able to generate any future support for any issues that may arise.

Partnerships are ideal for individual events or programs you wish to conduct. They are relationships in which stakeholders and other supporting agencies come together for an event or single program only, and meet accordingly to prepare and carry out the program.

Upon completion of the program, members of the partnership often return to their respective organizations and meet only when that subject is to be delivered again or another hazard needs to be addressed.

In contrast, coalitions are long-term relationships that are best used when attempting to mitigate and monitor a permanent hazard that cannot be completely alleviated by just education or a single program alone.

They are beneficial when looking to reduce or eliminate a hazard through engineering or enforcement methods.

Determining what you need - partnership or coalition - is imperative to your integrity and success.

Once you have determined who your stakeholders are, and whether you are looking for a partnership and coalition, take the time to learn who in that organization you should speak to or who the decision maker is.

This will involve some research on your behalf and creation of a solid plan, not only a plan on what you are trying to accomplish, but how your plan fits with your stakeholder's needs.

Again creativity is the key because your stakeholder may not see a connection. When you approach a potential partner or coalition member, and want to utilize their time and resources, you need to have this well thought out, detailed plan and place.

Not only does such a plan add value to what you are trying to accomplish, but assures your contact that you value their time and resources and they will not be wasted.

Because the fires are occurring during after school hours it is highly likely the persons starting the fires attend the local elementary school.

The school is an obvious stakeholder. But do they realize that? While they may empathize with your problem, they also have issues and are almost always overwhelmed with overcrowding and academic requirements they must meet. This is where your plan comes in.

Who in this school would be a contact that you could speak with who has a vested interest in working with you? School nurse? Principal? Guidance counselor? School resource officer? All of the above?

This is where a little knowledge and research goes a long way. Here in South Carolina health & safety education is in the physical education curriculum and the responsibility of the physical education teacher. Part of that curriculum is fire safety. So, by reaching out to the PE teacher, not only can he/she assist me in having time with the students, I can in turn assist them by putting a check in their box as well.

Partnerships? Maybe, contact the housing complex and school to generate times and audiences to provide fire safety programs and get funding or additional resources from insurance companies or social services, etc.

Maybe, join with law enforcement and environmental groups to create after school programs to keep the kids occupied. But through the partnerships you meet to conduct the programs and then return to your respective organizations.

Coalitions? Again, these are long-term commitments to address issues from and engineering or enforcement standpoint. Should you chose a coalition, you would meet regularly over an indefinite period of time to create and then monitor the solutions. Some may include implementing a curfew, limiting access to combustible areas, regulations on the sale and purchase of matches and lighters, social services benefits in relation to committing arson, etc.

Fire prevention is a community issue and should be approached as such.

It is up to the fire service to provide the leadership. We can no longer continue at this alone and must reach out to other community resources in a professional, knowledgeable way.

Give your fire problem some thought. Think outside the box, be creative and you can make a difference.

Everyone has a vested interest in safety. You just have to find and direct it.

DANIEL BYRNE, a Contributing Editor, is a firefighter/paramedic, with the Burton Fire District in Burton, SC. A 20-year veteran of the emergency services, he holds both an associate and bachelors degree in fire science, is a National Fire Academy Alumni, and a veteran of the Desert Shield/Storm war with the U.S. Marine Corps. Daniel is the recipient of local and state awards for public educations and relations. Daniel has been guest on two podcasts: 2010 Fire and Life Safety Roundtable and Developing and Adapting Successful Fire Prevention Applications. View all of Daniel's magazine and online articles here. You can reach Daniel by e-mail at