Community Fire Defense Plan: Analyze Before You Organize

Over the past several months, we have discussed the development of a fire risk analysis program for your community. We have talked about how to assess risk. Now we will discuss your need to analyze your findings. This must be done before you can develop a true community fire defense program; one which plans for the future.

A progressive fire department must start to plan for the future today. The fire service has classically failed to understand that the future and all of its unwanted changes comes whether we want it or not. By developing a proactive approach to change it is possible to shape the future.

The roots of the fire service are mired in its reactive past, where firefighters sat around waiting for something to happen.

We have often heard Chief Alan Brunacini state that one of the greatest changes he has experienced during his tenure with the Phoenix Fire Department was its move from a reactive to a proactive stance. In a proactive posture, it is essential for you to anticipate what the future will demand. You will then have to ascertain how an organization might respond to those demands.

The development of a community fire defense program is a positive step which any progressive fire department should undertake. It is the step toward which we have been moving over the past several months. Based upon the needs which are identifiable in a community fire risk analysis survey plans for the future can be developed.

Think of developing a community fire defense program in terms of a series of problem solving steps, which proceed in an orderly fashion to a logical conclusion. Crucial to the success of such an effort is the development of a database of information on fires and their related effects.

To prepare for the future, remember that the past is an indicator of events to come. Gathering and analyzing historical information is a critically important tool for studying the future. It is important to point out that data must be factual, and must be interpreted accurately to be of use in developing a community defense program.

Be forewarned that the groundwork for a successful community defense effort lies in a thorough and accurate analysis of all available data. This is a most demanding task, but one well worth the effort. Only the truly successful fire service manager is able to analyze, interpret and properly use risk data to maximize the effect of fire department efforts.

Fire risk analysis is essential in beginning work on this project. Risk analysis must be done to determine the fire department's operational status as it relates to community needs. Fire protection problems must be identified which, when solved, will reduce community exposure to fire related problems. By uncovering fire protection problems that contribute to, or worsen community risk, a department can develop programs which address the needs of the real world.

What are some of the sources for data that might be used for comparison in the data analysis phase of a community fire defense program?

  • The National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS).
  • The National Fire Data Center of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
  • The insurance industry's Property Insurance Loss Register (PILR).
  • State fire agency reports.
  • Local fire department records:
    - log books
    - dispatch center records
    - local media files
  • A historical review of department personnel experiences.
  • Local information that's common knowledge.
  • The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in Quincy, MA.
  • The U.S. Census Bureau

Each of these data resources has a place in any overall plan to study a community fire risk profile. Be diligent and thorough in this search.

What is the importance of all of this data analysis? Why should you spend so much time looking at trends? It is done to discover real problems. Further, it is useful in predicting what might occur, based upon past experience. Where have the fires been burning? Where are the people being injured? Where are they dying; and most importantly find a clue as to what is behind all of these things? An understanding will then develop of what it takes to solve the problems identified, as a natural extension of data analysis.

Once an understanding of your fire protection problems has been developed, appropriate defense mechanisms must be developed to address the actual, identified scenarios. The solution of fire protection problems which lie at the root of community fire risk exposure will then be possible.

In order to solve a problem, first determine the actual cause, not just the symptoms which suggest something is wrong. Eliminate the cause(s) and the problem is usually solved.

Buying more pumpers, when the problem is a lack of personnel would be another illustration of this premise. Installing more fire hydrants when the problem is insufficient water main supply capacity is still another illustration.

Essential to success in problem analysis is the use of a structured approach to studying the community's problems; this is a critical element on your journey toward success. The nature of the suspected problem must be stated according to the following criteria:

  • The essential nature of the problem must be captured in the problem statement itself.
  • Any desirable outcome necessary for solving the problem must be identified.
  • Be sure to state the nature of any problem in the simplest and most basic form possible.
  • One statement must be proposed for every problem posed.
  • Keep things as simple as possible.

The determination of past performance by the community fire protection system is an additional reason for this data analysis. For example, an excessive number of firefighter injuries would indicate that something is wrong.

Whatever risk approach is chosen, remember that research staff must be assigned to cover all of the pertinent, available data. During this period of analysis, the types, kinds and locations of community fire problems will become more apparent. This step is crucial for the next phase of our defense program methodology where the root causes of the problems being studied are identified. These are the causal factors, things which:

  • Are not the problem but elements which cause them.
  • Answer the question, "Why is this a problem?"
  • Exist on many different levels (from complex to simple).
  • May contribute to more than one problem.
  • Form clusters which can be identified.

Examine the following problem to see if the causal factors can be identified. There is an older private boarding school in a particular community. While some students live at home and go to school by bus, about 60 percent live in an older four-story dormitory. A recent survey of national literature indicated a problem exists in dormitories and similar multiple-dwelling occupancies.

It has been determined that a problem might exist in any building which fits this category. It is also deemed necessary to conduct a survey of this particular building. As a result of the survey, a list of factors are identified which form the basis for an outline of the problem.

These factors are determined to be:

  • Inadequate exits.
  • Lack of early warning fire detection equipment.
  • Open staircases.
  • Potential for rapid fire spread owing to wood finishes in the hallway.
  • No evacuation program.
  • No extinguisher training for occupants.

The report to the local fire administrator uses these indicators to show that excessive risk exists for death from fire at this private school dormitory are presented. These conclusions are based on the causal factors listed above.

The problem statement is the written version of this physical observation. To translate this problem statement into some form of action, an agency response must be formulated which will attack as many of the causal factors at one time as possible.

This is accomplished by grouping similar causal factors together which might lend themselves to similar solutions. This grouping function is essential if dollars are to be spent as wisely as possible.

If a program can be developed which will address several problems for the same number of dollars, it will be much more cost-effective than one which will remove only a couple of the factors. This grouping function is the basis for the proverbial "more bang for the buck" phrase heard so often from government officials.

By way of example, how might the causal factors, listed above in the school dormitory example, be grouped together for joint effort? The following factors could conceivably fall under the building construction/code enforcement umbrella.

  • Inadequate exits.
  • Flammable finishes.
  • Open staircases.
  • Lack of early warning devices.

The other two causal factors might come under the public education/fire prevention area.

  • Lack of evacuation plan.
  • No extinguisher training.

An analysis of causal factors leads to the next phase of the project: a development of potential alternate solutions. Any problem can be solved in a number of ways. Some are more appropriate than others, while others might provide a more cost-efficient delivery of services. Work to insure the choice of the best possible solution. To do this a range of possible solutions must be developed. The best one for the situation is then chosen and implemented.

In the case of the private school dormitory, which area of department action can show the greatest impact in the shortest possible time frame? It would be our choice to attack the evacuation and extinguisher factors while concurrently developing a means of overcoming the other four factors in building construction.

A training program can be delivered in fairly short order, with follow up classes as necessary. The same should hold true for the evacuation plan. It may, however, take a great deal of negotiating to come up with any solutions to the building factors.

One might question the legality of retrofitting the building. Additional questions might also arise about the fire department's capability to combat fires in the building, given the problem areas listed. Any solution to problems in these two areas would take time to implement. This is time which must be taken into consideration in any planning process which addresses the risk posed by the building to its residents, the community and its fire department. A whole host of spin-off problems might develop from the initial survey. These in turn would lead to another group of potential solutions. At some point, make the choices which are best for the community. Bear in mind that while problems may be without end, resources are surely finite.

Once your analysis is complete and you know what must be done, you can move toward developing a community fire defense plan. We will do that in an upcoming column.

Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., will present "How Much Fire Department Is Enough?" at Firehouse Emergency Services Expo '97 in Baltimore July 24-27.

Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a battalion chief with the Newark, NJ, Fire Department and past chief of the Adelphia, NJ, Fire Company.