Most communities use some form of risk management, yet because this process is often used exclusively by fire departments, fiscal managers, or insurance companies, the full range of issues that should receive scrutiny in a community don’t.
This leaves a haphazard way of managing not just safety issues, but a range of community issues including what funds are allocated to which need.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has what they refer to as a “risk and resilience assessment.” It is used to guide water departments in evaluating events that can threaten a reliable and safe water supply. Municipal agencies like police, fire, and EMT, have assessment tools designed to uncover and evaluate existing or potential risks that can threaten effective service.
It’s not that elected officials are necessarily uninterested in quality improvement, or tone deaf to citizens’ needs and desires, they’re just not following the same path their fire departments, fiscal managers, and insurance companies follow. But they could.
So what’s missing? Three things:
• A standardized assessment method that documents and tracks issues and administrative decisions.
• An effective way for one municipal department to offer feedback and suggestions to other departments.
• An effective way to assess problems and complaints that are reported to the local government by citizens.
In short, a level of communication that is inclusive and helps assure important issues don’t fall between the proverbial cracks.
Issues of concern are often unique to each locality, and individuals involved in those issues will process information in their unique ways, therefore any risk management oversight must also be unique to the local community.
This means that even while following a formal risk management structure, exactly how that structure is applied to issues will need to adjust to the needs and viewpoints of those involved. And this means that aspects of risk management will evolve organically while relying on a defined structure to lead the way.
A defined structure puts everyone on the same page and focuses attention on critical points. It helps assure that all necessary information is presented – a checklist approach to assessment. It promotes effective documentation, including follow-up for reference and comparison of different issues.
Origins of risk management
The formal process of risk management was likely a response to the developments of two technologies. In the late 1800s, those working with the new systems of fire extinguishing sprinklers and electrical power recognized the need for standards in construction and management. Thus was born the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
NFPA standards initially focused on fire and electrical dangers, but their codes are now embedded in many places. As they now state: “Virtually every building, process, service, design, and installation is affected by NFPA’s 275+ codes and standards.”
Community Risk Reduction (CRR)
An early use of community risk management can be found in St. Louis. This is described in their 2016 Urban Fire and Life Safety Task Force paper.
“In 2005, the St. Louis Fire Department — which protects a city that is 66.2 square miles with a population of 320,000 and a daytime population that swells to 1 million — launched a Community Risk Reduction program called Meeting Neighbors and Saving Lives. The program was the department’s first attempt at a true Community Risk Reduction program. Meeting Neighbors and Saving Lives was centered on meeting residents face-to-face to address fire safety issues within their homes as a proactive approach to help prevent fires and fire-related injuries.”
This report also makes some significant comments regarding fire departments and community relationships.
“It’s the all-hazards solution to the all-hazards response that the modern fire service needs. Many fire service organizations are hesitant to adopt a Community Risk Reduction approach because of the changes required within an organization. Fire service leaders need to keep in mind that Community Risk Reduction will make any fire service organization more efficient and effective in saving lives and property.”
“Community Risk Reduction is a gateway to the reinvention of the fire service culture, utilizing a data-driven process to change how fire service organizations handle the responsibilities of public safety. The initiatives developed under Community Risk Reduction require a new approach at organizational and community levels. As improbable as it may sound, change, in the Community Risk Reduction sense, will make any fire service organization more efficient and effective in saving lives and property.”
NFPA now actively promotes this approach: “programs, actions, and services used by a community, which prevent or mitigate the loss of life, property, and resources associated with life safety, fire, and other disasters within a community.”
Reducing risk in communities should not be the sole responsibility of the local fire or police departments, any more than it is the elementary school teacher’s sole responsibility to raise a child.
And again, it’s not just the risk of harm that community governments are responsible to address, but the full range of quality of life issues including tax burdens that are part of governing. It takes a community of resources working together to effectively manage a community.