Fresh from the two-day International Symposium hosted by West Midlands Fire Service, Phil Loach shares his thoughts on why it is so important to look beyond the UK to learn from others when it comes to understanding risk and keeping communities safe.
I have known about the IFE (US branch) hosted Vision 20/20 project for some years and admire the efforts they are making to influence US fire departments to focus on community risk reduction. It is a very different world, where over 30,000 fire departments meet the needs of the 300 million plus population of the US and where volunteers run a large proportion of them.
Listening to and more recently contributing to CRR Radio, the Vision 20/20 podcast, gave me an insight into the challenges faced by the US and a chance to view our own challenges in the UK through a different lens.
In my role as Programme Executive for the NFCC’s Community Risk Programme I spend a lot of time talking to colleagues from other fire and rescue services about how we can continue to evolve our approach to risk management. Much of that is about culture and how we run our fire and rescue services, but it is also about how we use evidence and data to underpin our decisions, matching our resources both to demand and risk.
I was delighted to host the first International Symposium on Community Risk Reduction at our headquarters in Birmingham on 19–20 September. It provided a platform for the NFCC and representatives from fire organizations from around the world to share approaches and learn from each other.
The term Community Risk Reduction is not commonly used in the UK. Jim Crawford, the Vision 20/20 project manager, is keen to point out that it is not just an alternative term for fire prevention. He provides the definition here: ‘Community Risk Reduction is a process to identify and prioritize local risks, followed by the integrated and strategic investment of resources (emergency response and prevention) to reduce their occurrence and impact.’
Rick Patrick, one of the speakers at the symposium and a director of the US Fire Administration, said: ‘CRR starts with good data.’ He is right and this point about data was echoed throughout the two days of the symposium. Rick talked about how the US Fire Administration collects data from individual fire departments but because this is not mandated, they do not have a complete dataset. Out of 30,000 fire departments, 5,000 do not provide any data. Even so, it will be no surprise given the size of the US – a whopping 28 million fires were reported in 2018 alone.
Interestingly, he says that fire departments that do not contribute data to NFIRS, the US equivalent of the Incident Recording System in the UK, are not eligible to apply for grants from FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency). The Assistance to Firefighters Grant is a long-standing multimillion-dollar grant programme that includes (for 2018) $35 million in grants for fire prevention and safety.
In addition to hearing from the US Fire Administration, we also had contributions from the National Fire Protection Association, more commonly known as the NFPA. Matt Hinds-Aldrich is a Programme Manager specializing in data and analytics. He talked about the national fire data system in the US and described problems similar to those we face in UK fire and rescue services, particularly issues relating to standardization in describing data and a tendency for fire departments to plough on with programmes without first basing them on sound data and evidence of need.
Matt went on to describe some recent work that is of great interest to the NFCC. The NFPA is collaborating with a technology company called mySidewalk to develop a digital tool to help communities develop their own community risk assessments. The project will use NFPA codes and standards including the recently published NFPA 1300, Standard on Community Risk Assessment and Community Risk Reduction Plan Development combined with mySidewalk’s Community Intelligence Platform. The first stage of this work is a one-year pilot project involving 50 US fire departments, which started in mid-2019.
We will be keeping in close contact with the NFPA as the pilot progresses. We are also interested in finding out more about the new standard NFPA 1300 – this is certainly timely given the recent creation of the Fire Standards Board for England. Both of these can help inform development of the Community Risk Programme where the NFCC is already looking at existing approaches to developing (integrated) risk-management plans across the UK.
Expanding on the point made by Matt about the need for evidence to provide the economic case for investing in programmes that address community risk, Neil Odin returned to the perennial problem of how to evaluate prevention activity. Neil is Chief Fire Officer for Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service but is also the NFCC lead for Prevention. He asked the audience: ‘How do you prove you stopped it (a fire) when it didn’t happen?’ He went on further to ask what was the economic case for continuing to invest in fire prevention when fire statistics show fires decreasing over time?
Person Centred Prevention Protocol
These are thorny issues for all fire and rescue services to grapple with and the reason why Neil is, through his NFCC work, developing the Person Centred Prevention Protocol. This is work in progress and is fundamentally about improving the evidence base for fire prevention and that relies on good data – although Neil ended his presentation with some words of caution: ‘Data is an enabler, it is not the answer.’
It was good to see attendees at the symposium from many different countries and from those who have responsibilities beyond fire. We heard about how the City of Surrey Fire Department in Canada uses predictive analytics to determine where and when opioid overdoses might happen. We also heard from the Dublin Fire Brigade and the challenges they face in keeping firefighters accredited for emergency medical response. It was a salutary reminder of the need to think about community risk reduction in the widest possible sense and not limit ourselves to the world of fire.
I was particularly taken with the comment from Marcello Francati, Chief Officer of the Greater Copenhagen Fire Department: ‘We need to be in the mindset that we are full-time fire-prevention specialists and part-time firefighters. The part-time position is when we have failed to reach our audience properly.’ This partly explains why they no longer use the word ‘Brigade’ in their title, rather the Danish word ‘Beredskab’, which means preparedness.
Marcello makes a good point about fire-prevention specialists. In the UK we have spent many years developing rafts of prevention-related materials aimed at school children in particular. Chris Bigland shared with the symposium the work of the NFCC-supported Staywise project. The team is exploring how to bring consistency to the fire offer when it comes to schools.
We are all acutely aware of the pressures on schools to deliver what is set out in the National Curriculum. Chris and his team are working out how, through a blue-light collaboration approach, Staywise can give schools the tools they need to deliver safety messages across the curriculum without a fire and rescue service intervention. This is ongoing work and we expect to see a launch later in 2020.
It is not possible for me to share the full spectrum of the contributions made during the very full two days of the symposium. I hope this whistle-stop tour of highlights whets your appetite to find out more – we are hosting the materials on the NFCC website.
In terms of where we go next, I am inspired by what I have learnt from colleagues around the world and will be looking to see how it can influence the NFCC’s Community Risk Programme. I think the symposium marks the beginning of a really productive and helpful partnership with fire-related organizations from around the world.
In just two days we realize that the challenges we face in the UK are not unique; we have much to learn from others and more to share as we develop our own thinking in the area of community risk reduction.
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