Community risk reduction in the fire service
By BRIAN GETTEMEIER | Cottleville Fire Protection District
First responders not judged equally when it comes to public safety. Police departments are judged by how few crimes occur in their communities: Few crimes means the police department must be doing an excellent job. Conversely, fire departments are judged by the number of structure fires; however, when fires are few, the public does not credit this to the fire department and often questions why it’s needed at all.
It could be that fewer fires are the result of an effective prevention program. In fact, more and more fire service agencies are developing community risk reduction programs to ensure their citizens are safe.
The Streator, Ill., Fire Department proves you don’t have to be a large department or have a large budget to develop a community risk reduction program.
Streator is a city of 13,600 located in north-central Illinois. The community has been deeply impacted by the downsizing of industrial America. The median income is $40,611, with 18 percent of residents living below the poverty rate. The fire department runs 500 calls a year and, for the past five years, has averaged 25 residential structure fires per year.
When Gary Bird accepted the fire chief’s job in Streator, one of his first orders of business was to meet with each firefighter individually and learn about the department and the community it serves: to identify what the department did well and areas for improvement or expanded services. Chief Bird quickly found that his organization responded to an above-average number of structure fires for a community its size. More troubling was the fact that there had been five fatalities due to fires in the past five years.
“As firefighters, we see firsthand the devastation fire causes as it consumes a citizens’ home and possessions,” said Chief Bird. “These tragedies are not limited to family; they affect the community and they affect the firefighters. I never want to see another citizen lose his life in a fire again.”
The Streator Fire Department Community Risk Reduction program was developed out of these meetings. This grassroots effort to keep citizens fire safe throughout the year was a multifaceted approach, and the smoke detector program served as cornerstone for the efforts.
The fact of the matter is some of the citizens most vulnerable to fires do not have the financial means to purchase a smoke detector. The goal set by the firefighters was to knock on the doors of all 6,000 residential structures to offer to check the smoke detectors and provide detectors free of charge to citizens who needed them.
The department approached the local Red Cross and asked for assistance with the program. The Red Cross is an organization very familiar with the devastating effects of fire, as its volunteers provide emergency shelter and clothing to people displaced by it. Through its community partners, the Red Cross provided dual-sensor, 10-year lithium ion battery detectors free of charge to the cause.
Firefighters then used a city map to identify where every structure fire had occurred in the past five years. Door-to-door canvassing started in the areas of higher occurrence and is currently working into areas of lower occurrence. They also went to the local media to promote the program, stating that citizens who needed smoke detectors could call the fire station and set up an appointment for firefighters to install a new one. Online videos were used as a recruitment tool to get volunteers to help out.
“Everyone we talk to while knocking on doors gets a safety message on exit drills in the home, natural gas and carbon monoxide leaks and tornado safety,” Chief Bird explained. If no one answers the door or if the residents state they have working smoke detectors, they are left a door hanger with information and the fire department’s phone number. On an average weekend, 100 smoke detectors are installed.
As a fire department, fighting fires is not the only responsibility. During some visits crews have identified and mitigated immediately dangerous situations such as natural gas leaks and carbon monoxide problems. For example, during smoke detector installation efforts, firefighters found three natural gas leaks the homeowners were not even aware of. “We have potentially mitigated an incident before it even occurred,” said Chief Bird.
To date, these efforts have covered about 25 percent of the city; the goal is to complete the project by October. Streator Fire Department and its community partners visited 1,397 homes, installed 818 detectors and checked 292 homes already equipped with detectors in the first six months of the program.
More than smoke detectors
While the community risk reduction’s cornerstone project is smoke detectors, the fire department has taken on other opportunities to expand the services it provides citizens, with the end goal of reducing injury and deaths.
The Life Safety Inspections of Businesses Program started in February. There are two goals: The first is to reduce the risk of fire occurring in a business, because the loss of a business impacts an entire community. The second is to ensure that all occupants can safely exit if a fire does occur in a commercial structure.
Another initiative is the Medical First Responder Program. In Streator, emergency medical service is provided by a local, private EMS service. In January, all Streator firefighters attended medical first responder training and in April, the Illinois Division of EMS approved Streator Fire Department to provide first responder services during EMS calls.
There are many advantages to a first responder program. In the event the ambulance is on another call, the fire department can immediately respond to the request for service and will have some experience providing basic life support care. Secondly, it builds a relationship between the local ambulance service employees and the fire department. This relationship and trust is invaluable during the care of the critically sick and injured.
Another reason is that it provides more people to carry the patient out of the residence. This adds safety for the patient and prevents injury to EMS and fire service members. The final reason is that it provides an opportunity for the fire department to interact with the citizens and ensure the resident’s smoke detector is working, inform him about the safety services the fire department offers and identify immediate safety hazards such as natural gas leaks and carbon monoxide leaks.
These innovations that expanded the services of the Streator Fire Department occurred with a minimal effect on its budget. Its success is due to the hard work and dedication of the members of the department, generous contributions from community partners and the commitment of citizens to make the community safe. These programs have already saved one life, and countless lives have been impacted for the better.
Brian Gettemeier has been in the fire service for 23 years, the last 20 as a career firefighter with the Cottleville Fire Protection District of St. Charles County, Mo. He is a second generation firefighter with a bachelor’s degree in fire service management from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He holds numerous state certifications and teaches all-hazard classes for numerous organizations throughout the state of Missouri.
Gettemeier is also a freelance writer who has authored several articles for fire service trade journals.