The competition for tax dollars is fierce during hard economic times. Every local government must decide how much to pay for parks, police, fire and emergency, sewers, water, and transportation. Within fire and emergency services, a never-ending dilemma forces competition for dollars among emergency operations, HAZMAT programs, and prevention.
Traditional prevention programs were focused on fire only, through code enforcement and public education. These have evolved into efforts to control property damage and losses in human life from a variety of causes. The majority of calls handled by modern fire departments are medical emergencies, and fire departments are also called on to respond to HAZMAT incidents that not only threaten public health, but the environment as well.
A comprehensive prevention program is critical not only for every fire department, but for the overall locality as well. This is not about enforcing code and handing out plastic fire helmets, badges, and coloring books to kids. This is about identifying community risks, preparing plans to manage them, providing true educational opportunities, and evaluating efforts over the short and long term.
Beginning with this issue of Local Government Matters, we’ll be including excerpts from Managing Fire and Emergency Services (Jan. 2012) that outline the foundation for implementing an effective comprehensive protection program.
The Building Blocks for Prevention
For each type of emergency, the building blocks for prevention (including mitigation) are essentially the same: engineering, enforcement, education, and investigation designed to reduce risk or actual loss. In practice, these four concepts are generally embodied in specific functional areas. For example, engineering principles are used in the function of reviewing plans of new construction so that fires or fire spread can be prevented: the review ensures building features meet code requirements or that alternatives, such as fixed fire protection features, are identified and included in the design before construction begins.
Engineering: Plan Review
A department that includes a plan review component in its prevention program is taking advantage of engineering concepts to help ensure a safe level of construction and use. The department makes sure that construction and development plans are reviewed with an eye to fire and life safety issues. This review allows the department to engineer safety designs into the community, thus reducing the occurrence of fires (as well as the expense of providing fire protection after the fact) and improving public safety. For example, a way to increase cost-effective protection during the construction plan review process is to promote the installation of fire sprinkler systems. The fire department’s active involvement in the plan review process can ensure continuity between the construction and the use of a building, and can give the department a different (and more cost-effective) view of protecting the public.
Plan review requires time, specialized training, and expertise in the fire, building, and mechanical codes. It also requires some understanding of the construction process and of the way in which issues (e.g., placement of fire department connections for building suppression systems) translate from a piece of paper to actual construction in the field. New construction plan review requires coordinating the fire code with building, planning, transportation, and environmental codes, and provides an opportunity to solve problems before they appear during construction.
Those who review plans must also pay special attention when alternative materials and methods are proposed to satisfy performance-based safety objectives instead of prescriptive requirements.
*This section continues with information on fire and life safety in relation to new construction; the interrelationships and competition among codes; coordination and advocacy; performance-based codes; and legal issues in plan review.
Read more about Managing Fire and Emergency Services.