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Cornerstone: A risk assessment how-to for all departments

February 28, 2008 
By Lyle Quan

lylequanWith so many strategic planning and risk-assessment related tactics and techniques available it’s no wonder some of us feel intimidated and somewhat apprehensive about embarking on these projects.

However, when council requests a report outlining where the fire department is and where we feel it should be 10 years from now, we need to respond to this request in a focused and confident manner.

The two books introduced here will go a long way in assisting officers in their quest of conducting a risk assessment and developing a strategic plan for their fire departments.

As senior and chief officers, it is our responsibility to plan for the future by identifying the risks and hazards that may affect our staff’s ability and our ability to meet the needs of the community we serve. To do this, a strategic plan must be developed to provide focus and direction for the department over the life of the plan. Think of the strategic plan as a reference for understanding the gap between where the department is and where it needs to be.


While developing your strategic plan, you will need to conduct a risk assessment of your department and the community. The risk assessment will help you identify and prioritize what needs to be addressed and in what order.

In the first book, Risk Management in the Fire Service, by Steven Wilder (1997), the author notes that “a risk assessment is a decision-making process designed to help fire departments determine where loss exposures exist, where unsafe acts or conditions can contribute to a loss and how to financially deal with losses that cannot be avoided.” 

Wilder’s book offers an easy, five-step risk-management process that covers: identifying and analyzing potential areas of loss exposure; developing alternative methods to minimize the loss; choosing the solution that is best suited; implementing the chosen solution; monitoring outcomes. This process can be applied when evaluating any type of risk, whether it’s emergency planning, public education or even if you want to design a quality management program for your fire department.

A properly executed risk assessment will help you identify the basic programs and tasks that need to be accomplished. To have any relevance for your staff, these tasks should be measurable and have tangible outcomes. For example, your risk assessment has identified the need for developing and implementing an effective incident-command system for your department. Once the program has been accomplished and implemented, staff will all be able to see the positive (tangible) outcomes of the risk assessment.

In appendix A of Wilder’s book, you will find some studies in case law relating to risk management and decisions handed down by different courts in relation to each incident. In appendix B, there is a list of common departmental loss exposures, which gives the reader a great starting point in terms of what you should consider when conducting your risk assessment.

In the second book, Fire Department Strategic Planning, 2nd edition, by Mark Wallace (2006), the author builds on the risk management concept by guiding the reader through a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis, which includes assessing the challenges and opportunities relating to the external environment along with assessing the weaknesses and strengths of the internal environment.

Wallace emphasizes the value of understanding (and creating) the vision, mission and values of the organization and how this guides the planning team towards meeting the mandate of the fire department. He also clarifies what differences and similarities exist between an operational plan, a strategic plan and a master plan.

Both books are filled with some great tips and suggestions on how to evaluate your department’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, which, in turn, will help you to create a sound plan for the department’s future. There are checklists and examples (in each book) that will guide you through each process and help your department in identifying the risks and challenges that you may encounter.

Strategic planning and risk assessment are an integral part of managing our departments but be careful that they are not done in a vacuum. To ensure that you have addressed all areas of concern, personnel from each division need to be involved. This will ensure that each area has been given the attention it deserves and it will also provide a level of ownership to the staff. This ownership will translate into a dedicated effort towards seeing the plan through to fruition.

Risk Management in the Fire Service and Fire Department Strategic Planning, 2nd edition are published by PennWell Publishing and can be ordered through PennWell or through

Lyle Quan is the deputy fire chief – administration with the Guelph Fire Department in Ontario. A 26-year veteran of emergency services, he is a graduate of Lakeland College’s Bachelor of Applied Business: Emergency Services and Dalhousie University’s Fire Service Leadership and Administration Programs. Email:

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