Author(s): Karen Berard Reed. Published on May 1, 2019.

Got Risk?

The short answer is yes, you do. But the data-driven insights generated by the Community Risk Reduction process can help you identify, prioritize, and minimize the hazards that keep you awake at night.


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Here’s a question for you: Are you responsible for the safety of your community?

Related Content

First Step
The community risk assessment: what it is, how it works, and why it’s essential for effective community risk reduction

The Roadmap
A new standard, NFPA 1300, will help communities navigate the risk reduction process.

If you’re a fire chief, an electrical inspector, or a crossing guard, the answer is easy. You’ll also give a quick “yes” if you’re a police official, a plans reviewer, or an animal control officer. Same for school principals, facilities managers, and lifeguards.

But not everyone has an easy answer. What if you’re a leader of a faith-based group or a member of an Elks club? A shopper at the local Winn-Dixie? A soccer mom who serves pizza and popcorn in the concessions stand at home games?

I’ll give you a hint: the answer is always “yes,” though some of you may wonder exactly what you should be doing in the name of community safety.

As a community risk reduction strategist at NFPA, I spend a lot of time addressing this question in many different ways. I also spend a lot of time defining community risk reduction, or CRR as it is commonly called. CRR is the process of identifying and prioritizing local risks, followed by the integrated and strategic investment of resources to reduce the impact—and, in some cases, occurrence—of those risks. CRR can effectively address concerns ranging from animal control to health risks among vulnerable populations to preparation for large-scale natural phenomena including wildfires and tsunamis.

It’s that breadth and flexibility that has made community risk reduction a popular buzz phrase in public safety circles. Driven in part by tightening municipal budgets, the emergence of data analytics, and an acknowledgement of a host of emerging risks, community risk reduction pulls prevention efforts out of their silos and makes them shared activities. The process ensures equitable disbursement of resources for high-risk properties and vulnerable populations who might be underserved, and ensures that resources for intervention strategies are focused on a community’s true risks. The data-informed approach of CRR provides municipal leaders with appropriate evaluation measures, accountability, and transparency across agencies.

CRR also brings safety into community conversations. Business owners, employees, residents, and even visitors contribute to the prevention culture. Everyone plays a role, whether it is working to identify risks, donating resources to educate targeted groups about specific safety behaviors, encouraging friends and neighbors to make changes, or celebrating successful outcomes. A rescue-oriented public puts its first responders at risk; by contrast, a CRR plan promotes an active prevention-focused public and ensures that efforts provide the highest possible impact. When the fire department in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, noticed a spike in cooking fires among older adults in the community, for example, fire officials added the NFPA Remembering When® program to their CRR plan. They currently have a robust program that has expanded beyond the fire department-resident relationship to include a variety of local agencies, including meal-delivery programs, faith-based organizations, local businesses, and academics from a local university. This level of engagement allows the team to cast a wider net of buy-in and has led to additional prevention initiatives.

NFPA has assumed a leading role in CRR development and communication. Teams throughout NFPA, including public education and our ever-growing data and analytics group, are working on projects to support CRR. The association appointed two community risk reduction strategists—Chelsea Rubadou, an NFPA engineer, and myself—and tasked us with developing a roadmap to guide NFPA’s CRR efforts. We embarked on a lengthy nationwide listening tour and met with CRR professionals, supporters, and antagonists to get an honest sense of what CRR is, where it could go, and how innovation could help more communities benefit from the process. A white paper outlining our findings will be published soon and will include practical information for teams interested in the CRR process. In June, the association will release NFPA 1300, Standard on Community Risk Assessment and Community Risk Reduction Plan Development, which will drive new conversations about risk reduction plans, strategic partnerships, and the need for a comprehensive community risk assessment.

CRR will be front and center at the upcoming NFPA Conference & Expo in San Antonio. In addition to an array of education sessions, a half-day workshop, “CRR at NFPA: Something for Everyone,” will help CRR teams improve their programs. In preparation for those activities, it’s worth taking a look at some of the key components of CRR—data collection, partnerships, and conducting a community risk assessment—to get a better understanding of the concept, its capabilities, and where it can go from here.

Learning to love data collection

CRR has been developing in fire departments throughout the United States for about 20 years, with roots in the integrated risk management model practiced in the United Kingdom. As the concept matured, it generated excitement as an innovative method to address risk reduction in communities, but few people were truly knowledgeable on the process. This led to a bit of an identity crisis, as many fire department prevention divisions rebranded themselves as CRR without making the changes necessary to reflect the process. NFPA’s work in this area has been going on for more than a decade and grew out of its efforts to develop safety strategies for urban communities.

Throughout its evolution, data collection has been one of the most daunting aspects of the CRR process. The first critical step in that process is the completion of a community risk assessment, or CRA, and the richer and more comprehensive the data included in the CRA, the more accurately risks will be identified and the more effective the overall risk reduction program will be.

To complete a CRA, teams must get a clear picture of a community’s characteristics, its unique risks, and its capabilities—all of which are most accurately described by data. CRR teams need to analyze local demographics to understand the people who might be impacted by a problem. They should have data about the built environment, including building materials, occupancies, and abandonments, as well as a clear view of the local geography including waterways, highways, wildland interfaces, and landforms. The CRA should incorporate past loss and event history with information about deaths, injuries, causation, and dollar loss. Data about community service organizations and public safety response agencies provide input on capabilities to prevent and respond to emergencies. Together, this information will help the CRR team identify and prioritize the true risks in the community to ensure resources are allocated most effectively.

The sheer mass of data necessary to inform a CRA can be intimidating for anyone who does not hold a degree in data science. The good news is that training and technology are available to build confidence among novice data wranglers. These tools, and their promise of making data analytics more accessible, open the door to CRR implementation across broader audiences.

Partnerships: Sharing the load

Another critical aspect of effective CRR is partnerships—teams must be willing to break down silos and invite stakeholders and potential partners to the table. In the CRR world, partners are those who are willing to help reduce the risks revealed by the community risk assessment. They offer funding, knowledge, skills, and boots-on-the-ground effort. Partners can also increase access to underserved members of the community.

While establishing partnerships might seem like a less intimidating CRR element than data analytics, experience suggests that it comes with challenges of its own.

When talking with fire departments about CRR, for example, I frequently hear enthusiasm for the process quickly followed by excuses why it doesn’t happen. “We don’t have time,” fire officials say. Or, “We don’t have the skills to complete all the steps,” or “We’ve talked about it but it always ends up on the back burner.” The fire service isn’t alone—any stakeholder can come up with reasons why the process is important yet somehow unattainable.

Fruitful partnerships alleviate these issues. They allow fire department representatives to take the lead on some projects and hand the baton to other agencies as appropriate. Strong CRR programs are supported by many hands sharing the load rather than one leader with very broad shoulders.

In Spokane, Washington, for example, the CRR leadership recognized the need to provide tailored educational programs to members of their Russian-speaking community. Jamie McIntyre, community risk reduction manager for the city’s fire department, worked with partners to get important fire safety literature translated into Russian. Rather than dropping the materials off to the residents, she connected with leaders of the faith community and housing providers and arranged to deliver direct education sessions with the help of interpreters. She leveraged the position of the community leaders to gain her audiences’ trust and used the church and community rooms at apartment complexes to deliver the sessions in comfortable environments. McIntyre also manages a creative partnership with the local university, utilizing graduate students from a social work program to enhance the scope of the program. This partnership helps residents access resources and education through alternative means, reducing reliance on emergency services.

Despite the proven effectiveness of those partnerships, resistance to CRR remains. During the listening tour, I heard more than one reference to firefighters who are more interested in suppression than prevention. Distaste for CRR ranged from simple apathy to the perception of it as a “tradition killer” that was eradicating the practice of fighting fires with equipment and apparatus. Again, though, resistance to CRR is not limited to the fire service. The fight for limited resources among public safety agencies can spur competition rather than collaboration; some agencies may be cautious about stepping on others’ toes, some may not want to shift work outside their comfort zones, and others are so busy with day-to-day operations that joining another project feels overwhelming. In some cases, agencies may fight to hold solutions close to the vest in order to be viewed as an important contributor in the eyes of those holding purse strings.

Many of these reactions stem from tradition, which is unquestionably important. It helps reinforce values, provides opportunities to celebrate contributions, and helps us reflect on our progress. But we must also recognize the difference between being rooted in tradition and being stuck in it. We cannot block innovation under the guise of tradition. CRR supports the fire service mission of saving lives and property and improving public safety by getting ahead of a 911 call and addressing risks before they become incidents. It enhances tradition with technology and data. The result is a modern fire department making data-informed decisions to guide tailored prevention efforts.

Help is available. NFPA’s public education resources include “From Lone Ranger to Justice League,” a tutorial on building strategic partnerships and one of the presentations offered by NFPA’s regional education specialists. Additional free public education materials to support CRR efforts are accessible online at

CRR moving forward

I’m excited about recent contributions to CRR by NFPA and other organizations that will make it easier for professionals to engage in this process.

One of the most promising efforts is an NFPA pilot project to test a new digital tool that will help CRR teams complete a comprehensive CRA. The tool is powered by a “city intelligence platform” that helps fire departments better track, analyze, and communicate critical data to improve insights, decisions, and community outcomes. Utilizing the power of NFPA’s data team and the National Fire Data System, the NFPA tool will integrate local and national data sets to create risk visualizations to help fire departments and communities tell their risk stories. This large-scale pilot will provide grants to 50 fire departments in 2019 who will use the tool and provide feedback to assist in its development. The hope is that the tool will put CRR within reach of more communities by appealing to leaders who may be initially deterred by an arduous data-collection process.

First responder mock treats an active shooter victim during a training drill

Community risk reduction can include preparation for hostile event response, such as this mass-shooting drill conducted at the University of Maryland. Photograph: David Hall

Part of my job at NFPA is to keep an eye on the CRR landscape, and as projects like this demonstrate, that landscape is changing rapidly. Keeping up keeps me out in the field, connecting with prevention-focused fire departments and professionals in related fields such as hospital-based injury prevention, neighborhood enrichment, community planning, corporate social responsibility, and other municipal agencies.

One of my recent trips sent me to Anaheim to attend a conference hosted by the Center for Public Safety Excellence. The keynote speaker was Joel Carnes, president and CEO of the Alliance for Innovation, who discussed the differences between invention and innovation. He reminded us that inventions involve the creation of a new product or process, while innovations improve on previous inventions to make significant contributions to existing products and services. I realized this message is important for the prevention industry and particularly for those interested in community risk reduction—in other words, all of us.

To provide the best possible service, it is essential that we keep up. If we fall behind, we risk losing relevance. Community risk reduction holds more promise than ever before, and it’s time to innovate.

KAREN BERARD-REED is a community risk reduction strategist at NFPA. Top Photograph: Getty Images