FIVE TACTICS FOR ACHIEVING FIRE SAFETY SUCCESS
BY MARK CHUBB
People engaged in fire safety activities have long recognized that engineering, education, and enforcement are the key strategies required to reduce the costs and consequences of fire. Figuring out how to actually implement these strategies is often difficult. Tight budgets, lack of staff, inadequate experience, incomplete information on the fire problem, and misplaced priorities individually and collectively conspire to impede fire safety success. More often than not, though, the problem lies in department managers` perceptions of the local fire problem and their priorities for dealing with it.
Even where local leaders see the need to take more proactive steps to respond to fire in their communities, the breadth, depth, and complexity of the fire problem may confound development and strategic implementation of solutions. Fire safety strategies, like fireground strategies, are achieved by deciding on and implementing an appropriate suite of tactics. Understanding and implementing the five “I`s” of fire safety tactics will lead to strategic success in the three “E`s”: engineering, education, and enforcement. The five “I`s” are as follows:
Develop and use information.
Forge new insight through analysis.
Leverage resources through integration.
Promote commitment through involvement.
It has been said many times that knowledge is power. The power to do something effective about the fire problem begins with a thorough and complete understanding of the factors that affect fire risk and how they are manifested in your community.
The fire risk experienced by your community can be measured in terms of costs expressed in money terms or in terms of workload expressed in time. As unpleasant as it may seem, even deaths and injuries can be expressed in dollar terms. These consequences are the product of the frequency of fire events; the magnitude of the fire threat; and the value of the exposed people, property, and activities. The fire service is often quite good at measuring the tangible value of lost property and the frequency of fire events. Possessing the values of these variables alone is simply not enough to produce a complete picture of a community`s fire risk. Consequently, programs based solely on such information are likely to be misdirected or inadequate.
Incomplete information about fire risk makes it difficult to respond quickly or completely to the fire problem in your community. Think of it this way: If your fire department received a 911 call for a fire in a building but for some reason did not receive a valid address to respond to, you might be forced to wait until the fire became evident from outside the structure. As a consequence, the fire would be much more difficult to put out once you found out where to respond. In fire safety terms, this is what many communities do. They wait until a particular aspect of the fire problem is so large and so apparent that it becomes difficult, if not nearly impossible, to manage with the resources available.
Knowing what has happened in the past, like finding out about it too late, is also unlikely to produce a completely accurate picture of what may happen in the future. Although past experience can be a useful tool in identifying underlying patterns and predicting future problems, it cannot be said that history will always repeat itself. This is particularly true in communities experiencing profound demographic shifts, new development, or economic decline. Having a sound grasp of the nature and distribution of fire threats, the magnitude of fire hazards, and the value of exposures can actually enable fire service managers to predict fire risk.1
Misconceptions and oversimplifications about the nature of the fire problem abound. Many fire service managers fail to recognize that the cost of operating their agencies is often much greater than the cost of the property losses experienced by their community in a given year. It is also far smaller than the total cost of incorporating built-in fire safety measures in buildings and products. Fires in nonresidential buildings claimed a mere 120 lives in 1996, and the number of lives lost in residential fires hit an all-time low of 3,390.2 Both totals represent a steady and significant decline over the past 20 years. Much of this success no doubt stems from nearly universal installation and use of residential smoke alarms and better built-in protection in all buildings, especially wider use of automatic sprinklers. Some credit can also be given to advanced medical treatments that help victims who previously would have perished from their injuries. It cannot be overlooked, however, that improvements in the death and injury rates can be shown to have a significant association with a steady decline in the fire incidence rate. This makes sense, since smoke alarms and sprinklers cannot themselves prevent fires. This realization takes on added importance when you consider that many smoke alarms are improperly installed (including too few installed), poorly maintained, or intentionally disconnected and that widespread installation of residential sprinkler systems in one- and two-family dwellings remains a distant dream.
All of the costs of fire–public and private–must be understood in a more complete way if the fire service expects a continuing commitment to its efforts to combat fire. These costs include the following in addition to the number of deaths and injuries and property loss values:
The value of exposed property.
The value of insurance premiums generated.
The proportion of property value invested in preventive and protective measures, including maintenance of these features.
The cost of public fire protection, including the value of volunteer labor.
Information alone cannot remedy the fire problem–it is only the raw material from which solutions may be crafted through analysis. Indeed, too much information can be just as detrimental to fire safety success as too little when it leads to “analysis paralysis.” Turning information into power requires insight into the meaning and utility of data so it can be brought to bear in the right place, in the right way, at the right time.
Phil Schaenman of TriData Corporation has noted that the two most common approaches to fire prevention programs are the scatter-gun technique and targeted campaigns.3 Both can be efficient ways of achieving results using different kinds of information, and both are effective for different reasons. The scatter-gun technique uses a relatively small amount of information to have a broad impact requiring continuing attention. The targeted approach requires a somewhat larger amount of information and aims at a narrower segment of the problem by trying to overwhelm it.
In either case, the effectiveness of the approach is dependent on the quality of the information used to implement it as well as the appropriateness of the method to the data and the problem. For instance, cooking regularly ranks first among the causes of residential fires. A simple, broad-based campaign to distribute refrigerator magnets to people reminding them to “Look while you cook! Don`t leave cooking unattended!” could dramatically reduce the incidence of cooking fires in the home. The message is simple, uncomplicated, and easy to remember. A similarly simplistic approach in response to the leading causes of fire deaths probably would not produce nearly as effective results. Careless handling of smoking materials routinely accounts for some 20 to 25 percent of all residential fire deaths. The smoker is often the victim of his own carelessness when bedding or upholstered furniture is ignited. In as many as half of all reported cases, the smoker/victim had consumed alcoholic beverages sometime immediately prior to the fire. Simple reminders of the deadliness of consuming tobacco products do not keep people from smoking and are no more likely to prevent careless smoking fires. Policy solutions, such as increasing tobacco taxes, can provide partial remedies by increasing the costs of smoking or alcoholic beverages but can produce other ill effects such as promoting black markets in contraband articles. Dealing with smoking fires ultimately requires a more targeted engineering solution aimed at the causes of these fires: the ignition source (cigarette), the fuel source (furniture, bedding, and mattresses), or both.
Insight can be achieved many ways. The most efficient is the blinding flash of insight that comes from witnessing a phenomenon firsthand. Most of the time, however, insight comes from dogged pursuit. Two techniques can be used to consistently foster insight from information. The first, small groups, can be used regardless of the size of the community or the amount of data available. Delphi groups use focused group discussion with a trained facilitator and evaluator or a survey instrument to capture expertise from a group of trained or knowledgeable individuals. Focus groups used in market research are similar in that they use structured discussion to identify the beliefs and biases of a group of nonexperts. Both types of groups provide a reasonably efficient way of identifying consensus on matters of importance to fire safety in your community. They can also be used to test insights gained by other means.
A second technique involves statistical methods. Everyone is familiar with the sports statistics reported in the media everyday. Many of you can probably recite a favorite player`s statistics off the top of your head. These figures are descriptive statistics or mathematical representations of the player`s historical success handling tasks associated with the sport such as hitting, fielding, completing passes, and making field goals. These numbers are widely viewed as predictors of the future success of that player in dealing with similar challenges. Unfortunately, this is an inappropriate use of these numbers, as anyone who has followed the decline of a once-promising athlete can attest.
The statistical techniques required to obtain useful insights into what may happen in the future based on what has happened in the past are collectively referred to as inferential statistics. The most useful of these techniques for probing fire data include location quotients, linear regression, and multiple regression analysis. These techniques are rather sophisticated and require some specialized training or education to employ but pay dividends through careful application. They are routinely employed by law enforcement, urban planners, and even parks and recreation departments to justify their budget requests and support their favored programs.
Making insights and information about the fire problem relevant to the people most affected requires creativity. Innovative programs for reaching hard-to-reach, at-risk populations have been developed and have proven effective in combating other seemingly intractable social maladies confronting our communities such as illiteracy, communicable disease, drunken driving, teen pregnancy, infant mortality, and school truancy. These programs provide compelling examples for the fire service to emulate.
What makes outreach programs innovative is that their leaders are willing to see their problems as part of a larger mosaic and take risks in pursuit of tangible re-wards. Successful programs do not solely rely on experts but also enlist allies to leverage their effectiveness. By integrating their message into other public education programs and becoming intimately involved in broader community outreach and development efforts, these programs demonstrate that sensible, safe, and sound behavior is consistent with the quality of life to which everyone, including socially or economically disadvantaged individuals, aspire.
Fire risk is closely associated with other socially risky behaviors that affect the health and welfare of those who engage in them. Making a difference in the lives of these people and the community requires that we address causes, not just consequences. Treating the fire problem in isolation from the circumstances that promote fire risk is itself a risky proposition prone to ineffectiveness, inefficiency, outright failure, or unwanted side effects.
As the fire service has become increasingly involved in delivering emergency medical services, leaders have become more acutely aware of the need to treat the underlying problem, not just the symptoms. Efforts to do just this have prompted many fire and emergency service organizations to broaden their outreach efforts to include promoting proper installation and use of child car seats, checking up on shut-ins, staffing booths at malls and health fairs to monitor blood pressure, and even delivering nonemergency home health care services.
Translating this into fire safety terms, programs that promote smoking cessation and alcohol awareness could be employed to combat the single leading cause of fire deaths while promoting cancer and injury prevention and cardiovascular health. Curbing smoking could eliminate matches and lighters from the home, too, keeping them far from the reach of curious young children. Any success from such collaborative programs is likely to be realized long before we achieve political consensus on fire-safe cigarettes or widespread regulation of furniture flammability.
Understandably, most fire departments prefer so-called safe programs such as school-based fire safety instruction and fire prevention week presentations. These programs are convenient and comfortable because we believe they address the fire safety needs of an audience at increased risk and one which will carry the message beyond the classroom into their homes and later years. However, achieving continuing success and consistent results with this strategy requires considerable commitment from many quarters. Less costly and time-consuming programs targeted not at all kids of a certain age or grade-level but only at those considered at greatest risk may produce faster and more lasting results.
Opening our organizations to new ways of leveraging our resources and reaching our communities can begin by opening the doors of our fire stations. Among the many advantages enjoyed by the fire service is the fact that we reside close to the communities we serve–not in some ivory tower downtown or in some far away capital. This advantage gives us an avenue to partner with other agencies and organizations to promote common causes. It also affords us an opportunity not only to get to know our neighbors but to meet their true needs.
Building community coalitions for fire safety begins at the company–not the command–level. Company officers must be encouraged to integrate their activities into the fabric of the communities they serve. Likewise, communities should be invited to use our facilities for activities that contribute to a sense of community and foster fire safety. Many communities use fire stations as polling places on Election Day. How many fire stations open their doors the other 364 days of the year to host groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or invite latchkey kids in for study groups or mentoring programs or provide smoking cessation information and referral services? How many departments would find these programs beneficial to their members, let alone their communities?
Partnering with other service providers and offering other agencies and organizations access to their constituents by inviting them into our stations gives us an opportunity to learn firsthand how to help people in new ways. By building relationships with their neighbors and engaging in cooperative enterprises that benefit the whole community, fire officers can foster opportunities to forge fire safety coalitions. Law enforcement has used neighborhood watch and community policing programs to do this, often with significant positive effects.
Getting out of the fire station for activities other than emergencies is also important. Fire companies should plan to play key roles in the community by contributing their time and talents to community enterprises. Attending the meetings of neighborhood associations and civic groups, participating in community projects, and performing services not traditionally associated with firefighting prove firefighters care about their community.
Traditionally, fire safety programs have been designed, implemented, and evaluated by a select few individuals within the fire prevention bureau. Involving the whole department in the effort to reduce the frequency and consequences of fire is the first step to obtaining the support and commitment of the entire community to fire safety.
Fire officers and firefighters see the real and horrible consequences of fire firsthand. No one in the organization has a greater vested interest in reducing the frequency or severity of fires than those individuals called on to quell them. Firefighting can and must take many forms. Keeping fires from happening in the first place must become the highest calling of all who rise to the challenge of fighting them. When fires cannot be prevented, their consequences can be controlled by adherence to a few common-sense precautions.
Common sense is not so common even among firefighters, though. The fire service must make sure all firefighters stand ready to serve as the community`s experts about every aspect of fire prevention, fire precautions, and emergency preparedness. Many law enforcement academies have begun inculcating all new recruits with the principles of community policing so they are prepared to promote the agency`s agenda not only on the street but in the squad room as well. We must recognize that the fire service itself erects many of the barriers that impede fire safety programs. Not the least of these is the culture we create within our organizations. Confronting the not-my-job bias in our organizations must precede any successful effort to change community behavior.
Fire departments that have expanded their horizons have found new opportunities to shape public opinion and have earned new respect from the community in the process. The Augusta/Richmond County (GA) Fire Department is among this new breed. Chief Ronnie K. Few encourages each of his company officers to adopt a school. These officers not only assist the school with fire prevention programs but stand out as role models to the young pupils. Seeing the community from a different perspective helped prompt Engine 14 in Augusta to go beyond its traditional role and help families in their community manage the transition following a fire. They have undertaken a project to raze a dilapidated dwelling next to their station and help organize the construction of a new safe house for fire victims. This initiative has helped underscore the city`s commitment to invest in the disadvantaged neighborhood and has garnered substantial support from the business community. In Birmingham, Alabama, Fire Captain Jeff Gay and the members of Station 11 actively participated in discussions to forge a public/private partnership to lead an aggressive community enterprise initiative to encourage investment in historically disadvantaged neighborhoods in the northern and western parts of the city.
By reaching out instead of retreating within our traditional comfort zone, the fire service can contribute to consensus on ways of addressing issues of community welfare beyond fire safety. Just as important, involving everyone in fire safety functions and integrating fire safety activities with community activities promote continuity and commitment by building a lasting constituency for fire department services.
Public fire safety educators know that forcing students to participate in and practice desired behaviors is one of the keys to learning success. Transforming our organizations into learning systems, practicing what we preach, and involving everyone in the mission are vitally important to getting the whole community to participate with us. In fire safety, like so many other endeavors, leadership must be achieved by example.
IN THE END
Providing fire service is becoming more about serving people than fighting fires. Anyone who doubts this need only look at the continuing trend toward fire service EMS. Seeing fire safety as a service people need even though it is not among the services they request through 911 is a must.
Successfully employing the three “E`s” of engineering, education, and enforcement requires the implementation of tactics that underscore service and leverage community commitment rather than settling for common compliance. In the end, fire safety success will be realized if we practice the five “I`s.” n
1. Jennings, C.R. Urban Residential Fires: An Empirical Analysis Using Building Stock and Socioeconomic Characteristics for Memphis, Tennessee. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1996.
2. NFPA Journal, Sept./Oct. 1998.
3. Schaenman, P. Proving Public Education Works. Arlington, VA: TriData Corporation, 1992, 113-114.
n Mark Chubb recently assumed a new position as fire engineer for the Transalpine Region of the New Zealand Fire Service in Christchurch. He served as fire code coordinator for the Southeastern Association of Fire Chiefs from 1993 to 1998, following 12 years of fire service experience in state and local governments. Chubb has a bachelor of science degree in fire science and urban studies from the University of Maryland. He is an associate of the Institution of Fire Engineers, a certified building official, and a Fire Engineering editorial advisory board member.