Tailoring The Fire Department To The Community

Way back in 1993, one of our columns discussed financial resource management in the fire departments of America. At that time, we spoke of how it has classically been a hit or miss thing. Budgets were usually increased in an incremental way, with great leaps occurring after unfortunate tragedies or when it became politically expedient for local governing bodies to support fire department growth efforts.

Over the course of our last several columns, we have discussed the concept of resource conservation. We mentioned that your community would probably be best served through the use of a method by which you can tailor your fire department to the identified needs of your community. Over the next several columns, we will introduce you to the concept of "Fire Risk Analysis" and its corollary field, "Community Fire Defense" program development.

These are not new concepts. We first began teaching them well over a decade ago for the National Fire Academy. However, the folks in Emmitsburg have not seen fit to update these courses and send them out to you in the field. It is my contention that over a 10- to 12-year span, a new generation of fire service leaders has emerged.

Many of those people who were taught these risk-analysis techniques back in the mid-1980s have moved on or retired. During the intervening years, we have personally used these concepts in our consulting practice. We have studied scores of communities through the use of these formulas and practices.

Based upon my firm's experience in municipal fire risk, we have decided to revisit this critical area of fire service administration. We are doing this in the interest of creating another generation of knowledgeable and concerned fire service leaders, managers and visionaries.

Photo courtesy of the Florence Fire Department
Today's fire departments must be prepared to meet all types of incidents. Here, firefighters from Devil's Lake, Florence and Toledo, OR, learn to handle liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) emergencies through live fire training. The firefighters are using a wide fog pattern as they approach a burning propane tank, with the intention of turning off the gas.

In the past several years, we have taken the basic Emmitsburg programs and expanded them slightly, based on our years of municipal fire protection consulting. It is our hope that this column and those in the months to come will equip you with the fire risk analysis skills necessary to meet the coming new millennia.

It has long been our contention that the future will be unforgiving toward fire departments which conduct business as usual. You must be prepared to meet such challenges as EMS, hazardous materials and public education. The trend in municipal and public administration has been toward a more businesslike approach to financial management.

Now more than ever before, fire departments are being placed under a fiscal microscope. Citizens, burdened by ever-growing taxes, are urging government to make cuts wherever possible. We must remember that the fire department is always an ever-present target. Fire departments must be on guard against careless budgeting and financial practices, as well as unnecessary expenditures.

The tradition of accepting level funding or budget cuts without a fight must be changed. In order to overcome this negative bias, the fire department of the future will have to be tailored to fit the fire protection needs of its community, much like a good set of clothes is sculpted to fit the actual physiological demands of its wearer. You must first develop an understanding of your community's fire risk "physique" before you move to design a fire protection garment for it.

Fire departments must become high profile. They must work to show the community that they exist and that their non-emergency activities are important. They must identify their customers and work to meet their actual needs in a cost-effective manner.

A good book to help you is the new Alan Brunacini text from the International Fire Service Training Association. It deals with customer service and is just the ticket for getting your mind right with the citizens in your community. In order to provide the best possible service to your community, you must know as much as you possibly can about its makeup. One proven method for determining community fire protection need is based upon a study of fire risk as a concept. While there are other methods that could be used, this particular model from the National Fire Academy has proven to be quite successful in meeting the needs of cities and towns of varying sizes.

By developing an understanding of what must actually be protected, the fire administrator can design a budgetary message to meet the actual, identified needs of the governmental unit. This will allow for a more targeted approach to the planning, allocation and spending of financial resources.

A military officer facing a major battle must know the enemy's strength and the battlefield upon which the fight will occur. So too should a fire administrator know the community and its potential for fire risk. Before the head of the fire department can decide how much to spend on the various areas of fire protection, that person must know a great deal about the following topics:

  • The population groups served within the community.
  • The construction types prevalent within the community.
  • The types and kinds of industry, trade and commerce within the community in question.
  • The risk inherent within that community for fire deaths and injuries.
  • The potential effects that fire losses can have upon the fabric of the community.

Just what is fire risk? Before moving on, we must develop some common ground in our understanding of the concept of fire risk. Let us look to one nationally recognized definition of the concept of fire risk. The National Fire Academy defines fire risk as the potential vulnerability to fire with the possibility of loss, injury, disadvantage or destruction (Fire Risk Analysis: A Systems Approach, The National Fire Academy, Emmitsburg, MD, 1984).

A fire administrator must know how bad things might become in order to decide how much protection is appropriate for a given situation. To accomplish such a community-wide measurement, certain questions must be answered. Such classic questions as who, what, when, where, how and why must be answered in terms corresponding to community fire risk.

Is one group of people more apt to suffer a fire than others in your community? How well this question will be answered depends upon the ability of a community to document past fire occurrences. If the record-keeping system is thorough and efficient, any risk-analysis question can be easily answered. In any journey, you must know where you are before you move toward where you wish to be.

In the absence of factual data, fire administrators or their designated representatives must meet with neighborhood groups, community and political leaders. These people will have an understanding of the groups they represent and be able to tell the fire department just who is out in the community to be protected and their special needs.

In order to develop an understanding of what level of risk exists within a community will require that a survey be conducted. A survey such as this is labor intensive. Sufficient fire people must be detailed to the survey party. This survey must have a focus, or the effort will be scattered and produce little in the way of useable data. It is not unusual for a community to have difficulty in finding a starting point to search for the community's fire protection problems.

One approach, suggested by the National Fire Academy, favors breaking a jurisdiction down into manageable parts and studying the major hazards in each area. The academy suggests the creation of fire management areas (FMAs) as the solution to these problems of diffused effort.

Essentially, FMAs are subdivisions of the areas for which the fire department offers protection. They are zones within your community created to meet the needs of the risk analysis. Many ways exist to accomplish this breakdown.

Logical boundaries may already exist, such as rivers, roads, interstate highways or railroad rights-of-way. Division of the community might be based on other factors such as population density, past fire load or land-use criteria. Arbitrary use of a gridding system is another possibility.

During a municipal risk study in 1983, the City of Newark, NJ, determined that FMAs of approximately four square blocks in area were an excellent approach to this problem of community subdivision. In those areas of the community which did not lend themselves to this approach, major dividing lines such as the New Jersey Turnpike, the Garden State Parkway or Conrail freight rail lines were used. Overall results of the program were quite helpful.

A suburban setting might lend itself to a breakdown based upon the zoning and planning maps of the community. Commercial and industrial areas generally present a higher level of risk than that which exists in newer residential areas. Risk and resource decisions can also be based upon a combination of such factors as land use vs. fire incidence, population density vs. fire deaths and injuries, or whatever is determined to be most effective in a particular community.

The ability of your risk survey to develop an answer to the "what" segment, as well as the "where" segment, of the risk-analysis equation can be enhanced by concentrating on the target hazards which can be identified in each of your fire management areas.

By combining actual site visits with a review of past fire experience, a clear picture can emerge of where the fires are occurring. A target hazard is considered to be any building or area which presents an undue challenge or risk to the fire suppression force or community as a whole.

The fire service classically has thought of such places as nursing homes, hotels, lumberyards, schools and chemical plants as requiring special fire department considerations because of the extraordinary threats to life, property and community values. Further, you should not ignore the importance of a community's history, traditions and cultural heritage. They are irreplaceable.

So much for our introduction to the world of fire risk. In our next column we will move more deeply into this important administrative area. If we can be of any help to you, drop us a line in care of Firehouse®.

Harry 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.