Chief Concerns: Building a Culture Centered on Fire Prevention

W hen the fire chief position opened up at the Spring Lake Park, Blaine and Mounds View (SBM) Fire Department in Minnesota, I marketed myself as a fire prevention specialist with a strong business background. I believe that the combination of my business perspective and an expertise in fire prevention is the reason I was hired.

My focus on prevention goes back to two fire calls that arose due to dangerous behaviors. I told myself that if I ever got to be chief, I would commit myself to preventing these types of incidents. With my business and efficiency background I thought I could make a difference.

When I was installed as chief, I examined the budget and saw major inefficiencies. We were geared up for the 2% of calls that are major fire incidents. Today, in those 2% of responses, we’re going to need mutual aid; we’re going to need the army! You simply can’t afford to budget for the 2% calamity. I’ve switched that around to gear up for preventing the other 98% of incidents.

Balancing suppression and prevention

We needed to strike a balance between suppression and prevention. It’s not going to be 50/50, but it needs to be more than just 1% budgeted for prevention. I started with that concept and, as I got into the budget, I saw ways to take inefficiencies and transfer those monies to prevention programs.

One big inefficiency was that we used to send the fleet to all alarms. This, despite the fact that all of the research shows that 2% of the alarms are true emergencies. We took that money and put it into a chief officer vehicle, which has become our primary response vehicle unless we are told there are flames or smoke. That freed up an enormous amount of staff time. We wanted to keep everyone busy and that led to more prevention programs. But not everyone is cut out for prevention programs, so we went out and recruited people as prevention officers.

Furthermore, we advocated with our councils that they would be better served to fight fires through enforcing the codes, and so we went from 1.5 fire marshals for the three cities to the full-time equivalent of six fire marshals. Fire prevention became a regular part of the organization’s culture.

Going inside the home

Because our codes call for sprinklers, we have just about eliminated the fire problem in commercial structures. We’ve gotten to the point where we haven’t had a serious commercial fire in five years. So we turned our attention to where the problems remained: inside the home.

In 2002, we started a home safety survey spearheaded by Becky Booker from our department. The Home Safety Challenge is a program that we continue to refine. Today, we have four people who have trained in and manage that program, and we recently hired three prevention people who are the next generation of our team to take the lead in community outreach.

We had enough data to show that our home safety and prevention program was making a difference. However, because of budget and personnel limitations, we never envisioned having the ability to get into every home. And we knew that not everyone would invite us in. At the same time, we wanted to leverage our knowledge through technology and create a web interface to encourage households to practice safe behaviors. We also wanted to have an electronic web tool to disseminate quality information that is based on the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) “Fire Is Everyone’s Fight” initiative.

Our goal to get to that next level is what led to approval of a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant. The objective was to create a more robust program to augment our department’s efforts and, at the same time, to make this information widely available to other fire departments. Key components of the Home Safety Challenge include:

• A series of videos educates residents on the benefits of fire prevention and home safety. Because various living situations present unique challenges, there are single-family home, apartment and manufactured home versions of the videos.

• An interactive website at that features a room-by-room online tour and identifies potential safety risks. The viewer receives a safety tip when a dangerous behavior or situation is identified.

• An online brochure provides in-depth information about potential dangers and the steps people can take to reduce risks. It also includes special advice for parents and caregivers, renters and older adults.

• The website, videos, safety forms and other support materials are available in alternative language versions for growing populations of Minnesotans who speak Spanish, Russian, Somali and Hmong. (Minnesota has a large Hmong-American population. The Hmong are from China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.)

Getting the word out

We were invited to introduce the Home Safety Challenge program at Vision 20/20. Thereafter, we were asked by at least a dozen states and Canada to present the program. We recently presented it to the Michigan Fire Chiefs Association and I’ve been asked to meet with the Alaska Fire Chiefs Association and to talk about prevention, customer service and community relations.

The feedback we continue to get is that a balanced approach between suppression and prevention is something departments want and need to do. But it’s a resource issue and, as a department, you need a fire prevention champion to make it work. In my mind, prevention delivers a tremendous return on investment. If you are only suppression oriented, you are missing 98% of the opportunities. n