Community Risk Reduction: Part I

In this article, we talk to Matt Hinds-Aldrich who is the Big Data Program Manager at the National Fire Protection Association. Matt has been involved with a number of initiatives including the NFPA's efforts in community risk reduction. In this first part of the interview, we talk about where community risk reduction started and how it differs from traditional prevention and education.

Darkhorse: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Why don't you start by telling us a bit about your background and how you ended up doing data and risk modelling with the NFPA?

Matt: Sure. I've been in and around the fire service for about 15 years. I spent some time as a volunteer firefighter in a small, very rural community. Next, I got quite involved in fire investigation, and as a fire inspector for a large state university. I kind of dipped my toe into many of the different realms of the fire service and have a broad appreciation for the business.

I realized very early on that I was interested in academics, and I was particularly interested in the topic of arson. As I furthered my studies, I realized it was the social dimensions of the fire service that fascinated me. I eventually received a PhD with a thesis on firefighter culture. All told, I spent about 10 years teaching at the collegiate level.

Darkhorse:  What were you teaching?

Matt: I taught some criminal justice, some sociology, but my real passion was always the fire service, so I also taught fire science to prospective or current firefighters and paramedics.

After a while I got restless and started looking for a change. An opportunity arose to work for Atlanta Fire and Rescue, and I took it. I was in their Assessment and Planning Section, which oversaw their accreditation, performance management, and all kinds of other special projects. One of the projects I led had to do with community risk reduction using data. This work put me on the radar of NFPA who were creating a new national fire data system. I left Atlanta to join the NFPA, and here I am.

Darkhorse: Based on your experience, what are the biggest problems facing the fire service?

Matt: That's a thousand dollar question. The truth is there's no universal thing that’s affecting everyone, but there are threads that are impacting most. I see two main threads - two paradigm shifts. The first is that fire departments are being told to use data to manage their business. Unfortunately, they often lack the tools or the skill-sets to do so effectively. Also, there are often huge problems with their data quality.

The other paradigm shift is this whole idea of community risk reduction. While the number of fires have gone down, the death rate per thousand fires has actually stayed constant over the past 20 or 30 years. How do we continue to get benefit from our prevention efforts? We've hit most of the low hanging fruit. We will need new strategies if we want to continue to make a dramatic impact.

The questions we need to ask are:

  • Where are the problem areas?
  • Who are the problem people, and how can we reach them most effectively?

By problem people I mean, who is most likely to have a fire and what type of fire are they likely to have? We need to avoid thinking one-size-fits-all approaches are going to cut it. We need to use different strategies to reach them and help them change their behaviour. It ends up being a data problem at the core. And one of the main tools to use is community risk reduction.

Darkhorse: You've touched on the fact that you were involved in some of that in Atlanta, initially. Was that your first exposure to it?

Matt: My first real exposure to it came from my time in England when I was in grad school. Since my research was on firefighter culture, I spent a fair bit of time in a large fire department doing qualitative research.

I was trying to understand their environment, how they were configured, and some of their recent history. They had undergone some dramatic changes triggered by some industrial action back in 2003.  

Apparently, firefighters were very frustrated with the way things were set up with scheduling and pay - they had a number of grievances. This led to industrial action, where the firefighters actually walked off the job and had picket lines and everything. Once things were resolved, management addressed the main issues and the union offered community risk reduction as their main concession. This kicked off some pretty dramatic change.

Darkhorse: Was there resistance to community risk reduction because it was basically a concession from a labour dispute?

Matt: Surprisingly, no - at least not by the time I was there. It took me a while to truly understand the dynamics of it, but community risk reduction was the catalyst for a complete re-framing of the fire service. The change was dramatic. It wasn't just, and this is a key thing, it wasn't just that they now had a few people that were assigned to do community risk reduction and everyone else kept doing business as usual. Everyone now believed that community risk reduction was a fundamental part of their job. They even put it in their job descriptions. 

I came back to the US with this new frame of reference. The mindset in North America is more traditional and community risk reduction hasn’t taken hold to the same extent. We've not yet embraced the idea that you need to change the culture of the entire organization to be effective at risk reduction.

Instead, we tend to engage in it as a project that we do for a little bit of time or as an adjunct to something else. Or worse yet, we just rebrand something that we’ve already been doing like public education or fire prevention or fire inspection. We just call it “community risk reduction”, but don't actually change anything about our approach.

And so that's really what's been interesting to me. I see how some of these concepts that have had dramatic results in the UK, have filtered over. In some cases, we've gained a lot of insight, but there's also a lot that's been lost in translation.

Darkhorse: Can you help clarify the distinction between prevention and community risk reduction? 

Matt: Sure. So this might be considered a bit of a caricature and maybe this description doesn’t fit every single fire prevention program, but I think it’s broadly accurate. In many organizations, prevention work is done by inspectors who are not line firefighters. They might be fire veterans nearing the end of their career, they might have been injured, or in some cases, they might be hired independently or as civilians. But there is at least a perception that there is a fundamental difference or rift between fire prevention folks and line firefighters.

Their main focus is typically on commercial properties and on enforcing the fire code. There is a legal or contractual mandate to inspect, so they inspect. The inspectors visit the site, fill out a form, and the form goes in a filing cabinet or digital equivalent, and it’s never looked at until there’s a followup inspection or a fire.  

Other parts of fire prevention are more oriented toward public education. We talk to young people, particularly those in early elementary and we show them the fire truck and do some programs like "Learn not to Burn". And we talk to older adults in retirement centers. But we often miss everyone else - frankly, there isn’t often time to reach everyone else.  

Now these inspection and education programs have had dramatic results over the past 30 to 40 years in terms of reducing fires. But the challenge is that we're still seeing most of the fires and fire deaths in people's homes. And traditionally, we don’t interact with people in their homes. Instead we often use big national messaging and one-size-fits-all types of approaches.

Any further gains are only going to come from taking it down to a customized, targeted message that reaches people where they are, in their homes.

Darkhorse: Okay. Can you contrast this with how it works in the UK? What does this look like for a prevention officer or a fire inspector? What is his or her day-to-day activity and how might that differ from what you just described?

Matt: Sure. So, first of all, this is the fire crews doing the prevention work. They actually send the fire crews out to do “home fire safety visits”. Initially, they referred to them as home inspections, but people said, "Inspections? You want me to let you into my home to inspect my house?” It had a very negative connotation. So they said, "Well, how about home fire safety checks?" That still had a negative connotation.  

Eventually, the terminology they settled on was the “home fire safety visit”. You're sharing with them insights on how they can be safer in their home, how they can protect their family as opposed to checking or inspecting based on some kind of criteria where I may or may not be "breaking the law".

Anyway, it required firefighters to go knocking on doors. But not just to install a smoke alarm.  A lot of fire departments knock on doors and install smoke alarms. But they often don’t use those precious minutes to educate the person who has just invited them in.  

In the UK, they use that time to give them brief, but specific advice around home safety. Over here, in some cases it's happening and in some cases it's not. I have personally been involved in a lot of smoke alarm installations in people's homes, both as an active participant and an observer. And I was quite surprised at how people invite us in and we do our thing, we install the smoke alarm, and then leave. We have a captive audience for like 10 minutes and we rarely took advantage of it.

There’s another key piece to this. If we don't know anything about the people we're going to talk to, we're just basically blindly knocking on a door. We don't know what the right message is. Do they speak English as a second language? Do they come from a different culture? Are they an older adult? Do they have young children at home? We don't know anything about them until we knock on the door. And when we don’t know anything, we’re far less effective.

In the UK each fire service develops a detailed IRMP, Integrated Risk Management Plan, that includes every corner of their community. It uses a lot of consumer demographic information or consumer lifestyle segmentation data from marketing sources, and they use that information to understand all kinds of things about every house. They've got it down to every single house.

They can tell whether the house is high risk or not. Or they can tell if they’re likely to be English as a second language. They adjust their strategy in different neighbourhoods. Rather than just knocking on the door in uniform, maybe we need to take a different strategy. Maybe we can work in partnership with a local faith-based organization or some other community group that has an established relationship with the residents.

Maybe they're high risk, but undocumented, and so us knocking on the door in uniform isn’t going to result in an invitation to come into their home. We can use the information and that data and that knowledge to come up with alternative strategies to reach these high risk individuals.

I didn't realize the significance of it until more recently. As I've started doing more of this work and started learning how that type of information, which is so far out of our realm... fire departments using marketing data, it's just such a foreign concept.

Darkhorse: Yeah, but it’s so easily available.

Matt: The more we get outside of our little bubble in terms of how we've done things in the past, the better off we’ll be. The fire department's not the first one to try to figure out how to get people to change their behaviour or to do something differently. Obviously, marketers spend their entire lifetimes doing that. And so what can we possibly learn from them? It’s definitely a brave new world, but we have the advantage of learning from those that have already blazed this trail. There have been many successes that have had dramatic results and many failures that wasted considerable sums of money. I for one am excited to see this all start to really gain traction - our communities will be much safer for it.