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NFPA Impact: February 2012

A report released in November by the NFPA’s Metropolitan Fire Chiefs section highlights the increased risks to fire departments posed by budget cuts.

February 14, 2012
By Sean Tracey

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A report released in November by the NFPA’s Metropolitan Fire Chiefs section highlights the increased risks to fire departments posed by budget cuts. The report was released following the Urban Fire Forum, hosted by the NFPA in October. The report, called Fire Service Deployment: Assessing Community Vulnerability, is available for free download from the NFPA website (www.nfpa.org). It provides an excellent summation of arguments, reports and other resources for fire departments facing potential budget cuts. A link to this study is also in the NFPA section of PTSC-Online (www.PTSC-Online.ca) and can be downloaded from there.

Although the report provides insight into potential unintended consequences of budget cuts to large metropolitan departments, it has equally valuable points for other urban and rural departments potentially facing cuts. The report and resources are well worth investigating. The concern raised is that many of these cuts may be undertaken before the full understanding of their impact is known. The report also highlights the importance of striving to achieve the response objectives in the NFPA 1710 and other NFPA consensus standards.

The Assessing Community Vulnerability report identifies the hazards of planning fire-department resources to budgets rather than budgeting to the plan. The report goes into detail on the need to determine standards of response coverage based on community risk assessments. Sizing the community’s emergency response to such a comprehensive risk assessment, the report states, has proven over the years to be an effective means of minimizing the consequences of major events. The report also provides a number of extracts from NFPA standards, the NFPA Fire Protection Handbook and other resources. Also included are recommendations for fire chiefs for making presentations to council.

The problem with councils mandating fire-service cuts without a detailed review is that the consequences may be farther-reaching than intended. The budget cuts may result in increased insurance premiums paid by home and business owners, and the sum of these added costs may be greater than those borne by the municipality. This may impact the bottom line of businesses. Of greater concern is that changing response capabilities may expose the community to liabilities in the event of a fire loss. High-risk businesses or structures previously built in the community under past assumptions of the fire service’s capabilities – for example, response times and water supply capabilities – may no longer be adequately protected. The assumptions used in approving projects may be invalidated without measures being taken to offset the increased risk. In my experience, there are never any retroactive reviews performed. In my opinion, in the event of a major fire loss, the community has exposed itself to a potential legal claim for the loss. This, then, has the potential to drive up costs and municipal insurance premiums.

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The report refers to the Insurance Services Organization in the U.S.; the Canadian equivalent of this body is the Fire Underwriters Survey (FUS). These bodies set insurance gradings used by insurance companies to determine household and commercial premiums. I have always believed strongly that any changes to a fire service’s standard of response (and even equipment purchases) must consider the potential impact on its FUS gradings. The FUS grading system has been undergoing a major revitalization under the leadership of Jim McLeod, with significant technical changes by Mike Currie and their team. They have been able to update records for all fire departments in Canada and have overlain these into a GIS format.

This enables FUS to portray the risks in communities and include response-time elements in their ratings and services for communities. This could now mean that FUS can analyze the impacts of changes on response times, fire station closures and resource reductions for example, and provide more accurate impact analyses. This information can then be relayed to councils, as proposed budget cuts can have potential consequences on insurance gradings in the community quantified, leading to a potentially increased rate paid by homeowners and businesses in the impacted areas. FUS resources are now available to support a detailed risk review.

Councils would be wise to request a detailed community risk analysis when considering budgets, and fire chiefs should be prepared when the budget trimming discussions begin. The vulnerability report and having an understanding of one’s FUS gradings will best prepare chiefs for this battle.

The Metropolitan Fire Chiefs section of the NFPA has posted presentations made at the 2011 meeting and the 2011 Urban Fire Forum online. Go to www.nfpa.org, click memberships, then member sections, then scroll down and click Metropolitan Fire Chiefs. The report will appear in the list of links.


Sean Tracey, P.Eng., MIFireE, is the Canadian regional manager of the National Fire Protection Association International and formerly the Canadian Armed Forces fire marshal. Contact him at stracey@nfpa.org


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