Targeted Inspections in Surrey, BC: Part III

In this article, we conclude our conversation with Chief Len Garis of the Surrey Fire and Rescue Service in British Columbia, Canada. You can find the first two parts here and here. In this final part of the interview, we talk about the resources that are available to fire services who are looking to use evidence to inform their prevention efforts.

Darkhorse: So we’ve talked about the benefits - and the benefits are compelling.  But do you have any sense of the cost of doing targeted inspections?

Len Garis: Most of them are sunk costs. I have an inspection division of 9 people, who are full-time inspectors. They take care of roughly half of the inspections. The other half are handled by suppression crews on duty - roughly 420 full-time staff.

Darkhorse: Were there any challenges - cultural or expectations - for your suppression crews? A big part of their job is now on prevention as opposed to suppression.

Len Garis: When I arrived here they were already doing inspections, so there wasn’t a big change. Nevertheless, we carefully measure what we do. And it's been such an obvious success that they buy into it. Knowing what we deliver and what we're getting for that delivery is extremely important.

Darkhorse: For someone considering this, say a chief or prevention officer, what advice would you give them?

Len Garis: Make sure that they match their problems to the remedies. They need to know what are their causational issues, compliance rates, type of demography, both in the residential and in the commercial spheres. Make sure they do the work. You can’t just cookie cutter the policy that's working here in Surrey for some other community without making sure that you understand the problem fully.

That’s my strongest piece of advice. Just because it worked in Surrey doesn’t mean it will work in Calgary or Halifax because the problems are different.

As a matter of fact, a couple of years ago the chief in Strathcona invited me up there for a day and he said, “You know, we really would like to replicate what you've done in Surrey.” I got a couple of my colleagues together and we did a demographic analysis of Strathcona and we said “You know what? You don't have a problem. The people are way different than here in Surrey.”

That said, doing nothing is no better than doing the wrong thing.

Darkhorse: So you’d suggest that others look at their own data - demography, compliance, etc., compare it to their fire rates, and see what is driving their community risks?

Len Garis: Absolutely, but before that, we’ve provided some resources to get you started. We’ve just posted a study that we finished in June about targeted residential fire risk. It summarizes the risk areas in Canada.

There are five risk criteria for residential fires based on publicly available data: People over 65 or under 6, single parents, unemployed residents, and high mobility people - people who move frequently. We identify the top regions in the country that have the highest concentrations of these traits. Using this as a criteria, I can tell you that there are 1.3 million households representing 3.5 million people that would fit the criteria of “higher risk”.

We make this list of neighbourhoods available at the city and provincial level so that the local services have somewhere to start. Basically, we’ve created a list of the households who are most likely to experience a death or injury from fire.  

If you just focus on those, it becomes very, very doable in most communities. One still needs to look at their community and say “How many people do I have like that?” and, “Are the problems the same?” I.e. lack of fire safety education, lack of a working smoke alarm, etc. But this is a very good starting place if you want to validate this for your neighbourhoods and start doing these types of targeted inspections on residential properties.

Darkhorse: As a starting point, you’d suggest take a look at these, look at your own community through this lens. Maybe you only have small numbers of people in your community who match this criteria, or maybe they’re not concentrated in a geographic area. But then you're saying take the next step and see if there are other issues, do a bit of the research by joining together the incident data and the inspection data to try to see the correlations between them. There are other factors you should be including in your community, is that correct?

Len Garis: That's exactly right. You may discover different issues in your community, but you need to do the work to discover that.

Darkhorse: Are you aware of other jurisdictions, even outside of Canada that are using similar approaches to targeted inspections?

Len Garis: Yeah, actually there’s a group, albeit small, through the NFPA that have come together. They call it Smart Enforcement and there's an exchange on the NFPA website. There's quite a number of interesting initiatives going on. There was actually a presentation at the NFPA conference in Las Vegas just a few months ago.

It was really exciting to see how this approach of using science to focus on priorities is growing. The prescriptive approach seems to be changing across North America. In fact, NFPA is trying to come up with some fundamental risk models that people might be able to use and apply generically. I think it's a tall order, but it's definitely heading in the right direction.

Darkhorse: Can you provide us with some of the links to this research and resources?

Len Garis: Sure. All of it is found on our Research Centre website. The whole site is full or resources for transitioning to an evidence-based model.