By Matthew Marietta
Emergency managers have long embraced the concept of building disaster mitigation efforts and community resiliency into local governments following a major event. Bridges that were destroyed in floods are rebuilt so they don’t fail in the next deluge, buildings are retrofitted for earthquake resistance, and police departments change their approach to community safety to address possible threats.
Big events of regional or national impact create hardship for multiple jurisdictions at once and dominate the 24-hour news cycle and political dialogue, sometimes for years to come. Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The 1992 Landers 7.2 magnitude earthquake. September 11, 2001. Gun shootings at too many locations to recount.
The Need for Change
These events all strike the public consciousness and motivate changes to public policy, laws, building trends, insurance, and numerous other interconnected aspects of our modern society. Yet the impact of fire and other smaller-scale emergency events does not generate nearly as much attention or resolve for change.
In 2010 alone, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) reported 3,005 fire fatalities, 17,500 injuries, and more than $11 billion in loss to communities across the nation. USFA also reported 106 firefighter fatalities and a staggering 29,760 line-of-duty injuries in 2013.1
Beyond the cost to our fellow public servants, these tragedies also negatively impact our budgets and inhibit our capability to respond to residents’ emergencies.
Why do smaller-scale events not generate the public attention and reinforce a multidisciplinary resiliency mindset that occurs in more notorious events?
The easy answer is that the catastrophes impact a greater number of people across many communities in a short period of time and involve relatively unusual events. Fire and other community safety issues are diffused across multiple jurisdictions. They impact one or two of our fellow residents every few weeks or so (when they rise to the level of newsworthiness). Plus, they fade into the background of the 6 p.m. news and our daily lives. That is, until it affects us personally.
Over the past few decades, the emergency management community has developed a model of emergency management that includes not only response—lights, sirens, extrication, triage, and search and rescue that include all the heroic stuff our emergency service workers do—but one that also looks at mitigation, preparedness, and recovery.
Together, these are known as the four phases of emergency management and guide our thinking about how to handle natural and human-caused disasters.
Recovery and community resiliency must become a part of the fire- and life- safety conversation just like they are part of the emergency management model. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has taken a strategic approach to this by developing a National Recovery Framework to guide community development and other long-term recovery and mitigation programs in the years and decades after an event.
FEMA has also tied some grant funding to the ability to think strategically about the major risks to our communities. Jurisdictions must have an approved hazard mitigation plan for this funding.2
A Holistic Approach Starting With Fire Prevention
Too often, fire prevention has been relegated to a secondary role in the fire department, often involving such activities as handing out plastic fire hats with your city or county department’s name emblazoned on the front. This is branding, not fire prevention, by the way. Useful—yes—but by itself does little in the way of risk reduction.
Within the fire service itself, prevention is a little-understood career field. The National Fire Academy (NFA) has dedicated a portion of the Executive Fire Officer Program—the premier credential for a fire chief—to a class aimed at increasing fire chiefs’ understanding of what it is their fire marshals do. In the same way, city and county governments need to look at a more holistic approach to community risk reduction.
Instead of focusing only on response and preparedness, localities also need to move into the mindset that mitigation and resiliency-minded post-event recovery are key aspects of community and economic development.
The truth is, the fire service is only one piece of a local government’s operation. The vast majority of the public attention goes to the big red trucks and to responding to fires and other emergencies after they have already occurred. Fire engines responding to emergencies is one of the most obvious and routine functions of any local government.
Mary Marchone, a fire training specialist at the National Fire Academy, refers to this as cleaning up the jelly after it falls off the grocery store shelf. Why do we concentrate on “clean up on aisle six” without placing a similar high priority on making sure the jelly doesn’t fall to begin with?
Of course, everyone needs firefighters in an emergency. This article is not meant to downplay their importance in our communities. The fact is, even if we coat our cities and counties in bubble wrap, there will still be emergency incidents that require the expertise of fire suppression professionals.
But we also need to be deliberate about community risk reduction: safety engineering, street access, water supply, building materials, and other resiliency measures to ensure safe communities and safe firefighters. Most fire departments now do far more than just put water on fires. They are the all-hazards emergency service. It’s what the residents expect. Cities and counties should look at fire- and life-safety responsibilities the same way.
Often, this expansion of duties includes prevention specialists partnering with suppression to expand public education outreach so that the entire fire department adopts a community risk reduction mentality rather than simply relegating it to assigned specialists.
It is not enough, however, to make prevention an additional responsibility of suppression units. This kind of holistic risk reduction is a specialized skill set. It is directly related to—but fairly different from—the skills and knowledge we require of our firefighters on the engines responding to emergencies.
Risk Reduction and Planning for Development
Recent scientific research has shown a fire in a house can become unsurvivable in as little as five minutes. In the middle of the 20th century when our concept of modern municipal firefighting was developed, this time frame was closer to 30 minutes.
Modern furnishings are full of petroleum-based plastics and synthetics that have lower melting temperatures and put off more heat in a shorter amount of time, with temperatures in a room reaching 1,000 degrees or more. How far away is your nearest fire station? If it’s more than a couple of miles, then just drive time alone will mean the firefighters may get there too late.
Most often, the time elapsed between your smoke alarm going off and firefighter arrival is increased beyond drive time by traffic, by the time it takes the 911 center to dispatch the call, by the time it takes you to call 911, and the numerous other steps in the response process.
Even if no one is hurt, one of your community members may have lost their entire business investment, or a lifetime of memories and experiences that we keep in our homes, to say nothing of the economic costs. Remember: The economic impact of fire loss in 2010 was $11 billion.
New development trends now include narrower roadways and homes closer together. Cars parking on these roadways and precision driving to make tight turns slow drive time and push fire engine arrival even more out of the survivability range, to say nothing of the economic cost of a fire that will likely be out of control once the engine arrives.
Long-term community development trends must be analyzed and taken into consideration. There is a scientific reason that the insurance standard looks for a fire station within five miles of an insured structure. It’s not just a financial issue.
If we are going to be building bigger houses with open floor plans, which are good selling points, but also contribute to fire spread, then we need to ensure that we are not needlessly hindering firefighters in other areas of a city or county’s development model.
Now is the time to build this resiliency into strategic plans. It is a resiliency that recognizes current challenges, not the challenges of the past century.
Is a community risk reduction specialist involved in the 5-year and 10-year development plans being developed for your community? Or is strategic planning largely a function of the economic development and zoning people, with a focus on the cosmetic appearance of the property and the potential financial benefit?
I would argue that we must take a comprehensive look at our development plans and bring all of these people to the table. In addition to supporting efficient preparedness and response capabilities, community risk reduction also has a piece in zoning, building, community ecology, and other nontraditional areas that impact hazard mitigation and recovery and increase resiliency.
Remember, once the property is rezoned, the elevations approved, construction completed, and the building sold, your local government has to take a large measure of responsibility for service provision for the next 50 years—or however long that building stands.
Providing police and fire protection is the core role of local government. Maximizing our ability to fill this role should occur as the future is being mapped out, not after the emergency is already upon us and all we can do is react and clean up the mess afterwards.
Endnotes and Resources
1USFA (2015, April 23). U.S. Fire Statistics. Retrieved from U.S. Fire Administration: http://www.usfa.fema.gov/data/statistics.
2FEMA (2015, April 24). Hazard Mitigation Planning Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved from Federal Emergency Management Agency: https://www.fema.gov/hazard-mitigation-planning-frequently-asked-questions.