“I have all of the personnel and resources that I need,” said no fire chief ever. When applied to prevention efforts and community risk reduction services, that statement becomes even more tongue-in-cheek.
As our world seemingly goes from one crisis to another—from pandemics and climate change to civil unrest and terrorism—and with fire being an ever present but less accentuated risk, fire departments are challenged daily, with no respite in sight. As the most visual and trusted community-based emergency service, continually challenged by limited resources, fire departments must consider expanding their partnerships in an effort to increase their community outreach as well as their service delivery.
Community risk reduction (CRR) in the fire service is a growing, but struggling, endeavor for many departments no matter their location. From a fire-prevention focus that was carried out as a collateral duty by a fire marshal or those who were on light duty, CRR evolved into a data-driven approach that addresses a variety of matters, everything from fires to injury and health risks. It increasingly is carried out by those who have specific training and knowledge, who are guided by standards and a growing field of best practices.
As CRR personnel, with their data compilation and risk analysis, bridge the gap between CRR and fire department operations, community crisis identification will grow, because data will uncover risks and hazards that previously weren’t known or appreciated. However, as with everything in the fire service, resources won’t grow with those demands.
Emergency Management (EM) has a similar evolutionary tale and parallel goals to the fire service. From a focus on nuclear war that was carried out as a collateral duty by random government employees, it evolved into an all-hazards profession that, again, is governed by standards and best practices and is carried out by people who have specialized training. Their resources aren’t expanding, and, in many cases, the situation is worse than the fire service’s.
With such parallel purposes and focuses, combining the efforts of the fire service and EM through a partnership makes sense. As the saying goes, “Together, we are stronger.”
Both the fire service and EM focus on saving lives and property through prevention, mitigation, response and recovery. The fire service’s focus is on local emergency issues, such as fires, injury and illness, whereas EM focuses mainly on natural and manmade disasters on a larger community scale. Yet, whether a house fire or a community’s hurricane preparedness, it comes down to the education of the individual citizen, either in physical preparation of their family and home or in supporting legislative efforts for a more resilient community.
The fire service educates on smoke alarms and escape drills in the home, whereas EM focuses on creating disaster kits and family preparedness plans. The fire service advocates for sprinkler systems and structural fire codes, whereas EM advocates for hurricane bracing and structural flood-wind-water codes. These are two tax-based community services that attack the same problem of individual and community resiliency but do so in a parallel but separate manner. However, more can be efficiently accomplished when those parallel efforts combine for a synergistic approach.
Would educating the community as one voice reach a wider audience, to result in more of an effect, better messaging and a safer, more resilient community? Would advocating for needed codes, albeit fire- or wind-related, but under the same auspice of safer structures and safer communities, result in stronger and more-difficult-to-ignore voices at the capital?
As the blanket of climate change wraps us all under one cover, and as fire departments increasingly are called on and expected to address its effects, either by prevention or response, these questions only will be more beneficial to address in a unifying manner.
Benefits of partnership
In “blue skies” mode, EM either is a one-office entity or it comprises a limited number of individuals who manage community programs at the planning level. From writing emergency plans to the administration of grants, EM personnel largely are in offices in a supportive role.
FEMA acknowledges that the organization’s approach to educational outreach has failed to produce the level of national preparedness that’s needed. It called for a different approach by creating a culture of preparedness through building relationships and trust within the communities—exactly what fire departments and firefighters have done for decades.
When an engine company is in at-risk neighborhoods working to educate residents on the importance of smoke alarms, why not add disaster kits and evacuation plans to the information that’s shared? Firefighters are knowledgeable about the community’s culture and leaders and aware of residents who might have functional needs, lack transportation or have other issues that affect life safety in a disaster. All of this is important data that EM planners must have when they develop emergency operations plans, of which the fire department is a part, or when they apply for federal grants that benefit the whole community.
EM also might be able to provide increased financial and educational opportunities to the fire service. Although a majority of EM grants are more aligned for EM needs, by combining missions and messages, the potential exists to assist fire department CRR efforts while supporting the EM mission. EM offers many training opportunities through either the Emergency Management Institute or state-level EM agencies, which address subjects that enhance any CRR program, including community relations, stakeholder engagement, public information and communication, and data management. Often, these classes are local and largely free to participants.
Whether utilizing the community relationships and trust that firefighters have to help EM to carry disaster preparedness information into the community, to exchange mutually beneficial data from the unique perspectives that different professions can provide, or to unite as one voice at the capital to advocate for funding and code adoption, this relationship is a win-win for the whole community. Whether responding to a house fire or to a tornado that touched down, our profession and expected services cross all boundaries. By combining fire service-based CRR at the street level with EM resources and data from the bird’s-eye level, Mrs. Jane Q. Citizen has multiple eyes and resources protecting her and increasing her life safety and property conservation. At the end of the day, isn’t that what it’s all about?