Protecting vulnerable communities in the fire service

In this tip, risk management expert Gordon Graham outlines a community risk reduction plan departments can follow to protect at-risk populations

Gordon Graham here with Today’s Tip from Lexipol. Today’s Tip is for fire service personnel.  

I’m sure you all remember the tragic start we had to the year. January 2022 saw two fatal fires, one in Philadelphia’s Fairmont neighborhood, and the other in New York City’s Bronx borough. Together, these fires claimed 31 people.  

As is so often the case, these deaths were predictable and preventable. The cause of the Philadelphia fire was a child playing with a lighter, and in the Bronx fire, a faulty space heater.  

The root causes, however, were the same: inconsistent code enforcement and poor building maintenance. This created myriad life-safety issues, including non-functioning or missing smoke detectors, inoperable self-closing fire doors, and a lack of automatic sprinkler systems.   

For 50 years, we’ve known these are risk factors for fire deaths. In fact, 60% of fatal residential fires occur in homes without smoke detectors.  

We also know the power of fire sprinklers. In buildings without sprinklers, people die from fire at nearly 10 times the rate than in buildings with sprinklers.  

Finally, many buildings in our communities are not properly maintained. Self-closing doors that do not work. Heating systems that go unrepaired. These can be deadly. Residents will ignore or shut off alarms that repeatedly go off. They will block open doors and resort to alternative methods of keeping warm if the heat doesn’t work.  

How do we go about fixing these issues? Develop a Community Risk Reduction Program. Identify the at-risk neighborhoods and population groups in your community. Age, poverty level, housing status, race, and even languages spoken are all possible identifiers of vulnerability.  

Next, develop targeted interventions for these vulnerable groups. A smoke detector installation program or targeted code enforcement effort can go a long way to reduce the risk of fire-related death and injury.  

Lastly, become an advocate for residential sprinklers — including retrofitting existing multiple-family homes. If necessary, focus your sprinkler efforts on public housing and government-subsidized housing. As fire service leaders, the safety of your communities is your business. Make your voice heard. It is all about preservation of life. 

And that’s Today’s Tip from Lexipol. Until next time, Gordon Graham signing off. 

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