Community Risk Reduction
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from Jim Crawford,
What is the purpose of “community outreach”? Many fire departments use this terminology to describe an effort to improve relationships
with the communities we serve. But that begs another
question: Why do we want to improve our relationship? The answer of course is because the community
supports our departments with tax dollars, and we
want them to value us.
Well, if that is the purpose of community outreach
efforts, then how do we know when we’ve achieved
Consider a case study from much earlier in my
career, in Portland, Oregon. We (the fire department)
were competing with other city bureaus for funding
in the early 1990s. Tax dollars were scarce, the taxpayers were pushing property tax limits, and general
anxiety over too much government was a norm for
our times and community.
The police were getting budget increases at the time
because of their efforts to institutionalize something
called community policing. The fire department
budget was being cut. The fire chief asked me to
lead a small team to come up with the equivalent
of community policing for the fire service. And like
many mistakes I’ve made, I went with the old standby
of some established community outreach efforts. I
thought we needed to improve our relationship with
the taxpaying public, and we would do so through a
variety of efforts that would open up the fire stations
and our department to community events and people.
Among other things, we would increase our visibil-
ity by attending neighborhood association meetings,
In other words, the purpose of community policing
wasn’t really about improving community relations;
it was about establishing a partnership with the com-
munity that engaged them in a common purpose—to
improve public safety. But it was also improving their
standing in the community. So, we could eventu-
ally see that engaging the community in our mission
would concurrently improve community relations.
WHAT’S THE PURPOSE?
So, I’ll ask again: What is the purpose of community outreach? I submit it is to improve public safety.
It is to engage the community in solving problems
that we cannot solve by ourselves. It is about identifying what those particular public safety problems are
(i.e., a risk assessment) and then working with them
to either prevent them or to mitigate the damage once
they do occur.
Our goal? To manage our call volume more effectively. To improve public safety. To reduce risks of
firefighter injuries or even deaths, because each time
we respond we are placed at risk. And what do we get
out of it? Well, improved community relations is an
ancillary benefit—and it can be measured.
We can survey people pre- and post-event to find
out how they feel about us. That’s good as far as it
Connecting with the community with a purpose
We can design our strategies based on the
various risks each part of our community has.