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

First Step

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


Think of a community risk assessment this way:

Imagine you’re planning to sell your home within the year and you have some money to invest in updates to make it more marketable. Conventional wisdom has it that the best return on your money comes from kitchen or bathroom remodels. But is that always the case?

What if your front porch is crumbling and appears to be a dangerous eyesore? What if your septic system needs replacing? What if that big old oak tree in your yard leaves buyers wondering if it will survive the next storm without dropping branches through the roof? A thorough assessment of your property will ensure you get the biggest return on your update investment—you may decide to hold off on those granite countertops. The community risk assessment, or CRA, holds the same importance in the community risk reduction process.

The CRA is the first step in the process of community risk reduction. A CRA is a comprehensive, data-rich evaluation that identifies, prioritizes, and defines the risks faced by the overall community. It provides insight to a wide range of potential problems, from swimming pool drownings to older adult falls to train derailments. It illuminates parts of the community that could be particularly vulnerable. Collecting and analyzing all the data necessary for a thorough CRA can be intimidating—and is frequently skipped in practice—but it’s worth the effort. The all-hazards approach of the CRA typically uncovers a wide range of risks, revealing surprises as well as confirming suspicions. For example, many communities are aware that cooking fires are the source of many 911 calls. A CRA can help pinpoint neighborhoods and groups of residents who are at particularly high risk for these types of fires, information that can be used to tailor interventions to achieve a greater degree of risk reduction—a much more effective strategy than the “spray and pray” approach.

Once a CRA is completed, a committee of stakeholders and partners can examine the results and prioritize the risks that will be addressed in the plan. It is important to involve a range of community representatives to avoid priority tilts. When the risks are prioritized, the committee can analyze root causes and develop a plan to address the selected risks.

Partners are again critical to this process—the weight of the CRR plan should be distributed across participants. The CRR committee should consider task assignment and ensure that appropriate risk-to-resource matches are made. For example, it would be natural for the fire department to take the lead on reducing cooking fires in high-rise apartment buildings—but the housing board, local pastor, and meal-delivery volunteers are important partners who could assist with education, access, and other resources. It makes sense for animal control officers to take the lead on risks around rabid critters, but emergency medical services, the sanitation department, and hardware stores may have useful support roles as well.

For CRR efforts to be effective, engagement across the comunity is essential to create a culture of safety and prevention.

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