Author(s): John Montes. Published on September 1, 2019.

The Power of Presence 
For responders, community risk reduction starts with being visible in the neighborhoods they serve

Community risk reduction, or CRR, is a concept we hear a lot these days. As the name implies, CRR encourages communities to identify and rank their specific risk factors and develop plans to prevent or minimize them. The process for doing this is laid out in the recently published NFPA 1300, Standard on Community Risk Assessment and Community Risk Reduction Plan Development. All of this got me thinking about the role responders have in CRR, and the most effective ways we can help our communities reduce risk.

For me, one of the best and most immediate things that public safety departments can do to make a significant impact on CRR is simply by being more visible in the communities we serve. I’ve seen firsthand the difference it can make for both responders and citizens.

I grew up in Boston in the 1980s and 1990s, a period when the city saw some of its highest crime rates. But those years also included “the Boston Miracle,” dramatized in the new Showtime series City on a Hill. The miracle happened when first responders, clergy, elected officials, and other leaders made a conscious effort to go into the community and make their presence known. The hope was that building more positive relationships with the city’s youth would eventually lead to a stronger community and a reduction in crime and violence. Police officers and firefighters began to be a regular presence in schools. My Little League coach was also my DARE officer, and my soccer and hockey coaches were firefighters. The local EMTs would come and watch games in between calls.

Their presence had so many positive effects. For one, local responders and the neighborhood kids got to know each other. When we interacted, we weren’t fearful, we were respectful, and we came to understand they were there for us. Multiplied across an entire city, the approach was an important part of a 63 percent reduction in homicides, a precipitous drop in overall crime, and an entire generation of kids who grew up more engaged in their communities.

I know from experience that many responders may not live in the communities where they work, and some may be reluctant to be more involved out of safety and security concerns. This is understandable, but by remaining distant, responders are missing an opportunity not only to help the communities they serve but also to make them more effective at their jobs. We can learn a lot about a community’s needs just by being present, which can translate to being more prepared when we are called upon.

Most responding agencies now collect a wealth of data as part of their emergency dispatch and responses; when that data is analyzed, it can provide some critical insights about a community’s pain points, makeup, and even its response capabilities. Departments across the world have used this data to create a number of unique and successful programs that target specific community needs. But we could do even more. While call and response data is incredibly useful information, it only goes so deep and may not give you a whole picture. Spending time in neighborhoods and learning from the people who live there can provide additional insights that aren’t always apparent by studying a data spreadsheet.

Most of us got into this work because of a desire to help others. The satisfaction we take home from helping someone in need is the same satisfaction you can get from building personal relationships in your community. My hope is that more first responders will give it a try. Not only will it boost your CRR program, but you can take satisfaction in knowing that you are helping in yet another way.


John Montes is specialist, emergency services public fire protection, at NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler