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June 11, 2012
By Len Garis

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The Surrey Fire Service in British Columbia has used a data-driven, research-based approach to reduce residential fires.

The Surrey Fire Service in British Columbia has used a data-driven, research-based approach to reduce residential fires.

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Surrey, B.C.’s HomeSafe program has reduced the number of residential fires in the highest-risk homes in the city by almost two-thirds and has prevented an estimated $1.26 million in fire losses.


 

This program, known as HomeSafe, has involved on-duty firefighters going door-to-door in the city’s highest fire risk neighbourhoods, distributing fire prevention information, checking for working smoke alarms and installing free smoke alarms as required.

In its first two years, this program has reduced the annual rate of residential fires in the highest-risk homes in the city by almost two-thirds, and has prevented an estimated $1.26 million in fire losses. In addition, when fires did occur after the home visits, smoke alarms activated more frequently and fires were smaller and did less damage.
HomeSafe was the result of a study of international best practices in fire safety home visits, and the implementation of selected elements of those best practices in Surrey.

From the early 1990s, the effectiveness of public fire education has been illustrated. For example, Proving Fire Education Works, written by Philip Schaenman, Charles Jennings and colleagues from the TriData Corporation in 1990, analyzed 77 public-education strategies including school-based programs, comprehensive community-wide programs, programs targeting a specific cause of fire or audience, juvenile fire-setter programs, smoke-detector programs, and national strategies. All 77 initiatives demonstrated some form of positive impact.

More recently, a 2009 TriData review of best practices in residential fire prevention highlighted the impact of home visitation programs in the United Kingdom that targeted fire-safety inspections and risk reduction, and emphasized the importance of working smoke alarms.

Similar initiatives have become crucial components of Canadian residential fire-prevention efforts, often implemented by either community-based volunteers or by acquiring additional prevention funds. These types of visits have focused the presence and functionality of smoke alarms, the development of fire-escape plans, and public education on common causes of preventable house fires, with the typical result being reduced rates of fires and increased presence of working smoke alarms.

However, these types of initiatives have lacked conclusive, formal evaluation and have often become victims of their own success, with funding and focus redirected after the problems were perceived to have been solved.

Motivated by these indications that data-driven approaches can reduce the frequency of residential fires, Surrey Fire Service commissioned a review of Surrey fire data from 1988 to 2007.  Analysis of almost 5,000 structure fires indicated the following trends:

More than 75 per cent of the structure fires involved residential properties.

The incidence of fire increased when occupants smoked, were elderly, had a disability or had mental-health or substance use issues.

Residential structure fires tended to be clustered geographically, and based on dwelling use, on sources of ignition (for example, cooking or open flames), and on the presence of functioning smoke alarms.

With this data in hand, Surrey created HomeSafe, a custom fire-education program that targets the neighbourhoods historically associated with an increased risk of residential fires.

HomeSafe leverages local fire data and fire education best practices to target residential fires in neighbourhoods that pose the greatest risk. Risk is determined based on the distribution of recent fires across the city, combined with the concentrations of high-risk residents (as a consequence of factors such as age, family structure, and lifestyle). The aim was to reduce the frequency and severity of residential fires.

These high-risk zones are located throughout the city. Each of Surrey’s 17 fire halls receives an equal number of information packages to distribute and a list of addresses to target. Scheduled training is suspended for a two-week period, during which crews deliver an average of 2,620 information packages. At the time of formal evaluation, this distribution process had been completed seven times.

When undertaking the deliveries, uniformed firefighters go door-to-door in the high-risk zones to educate residents about fire safety, provide an information package and offer to install a free smoke alarm on the spot (a signed waiver is required). The information package covers a range of prevention topics, including:

  • Smoke alarms – purpose, types, locations, strategies and maintenance
  • Home fire escape plans – need and purpose, the realities of fire, what to do in case of fire, individuals and locations with the greatest fire risks
  • Children and fire – curiosity about fire, parenting strategies to prevent fire-setting, safe use of fire, setting a good example
  • Seniors fire safety – fire survival and prevention strategies, home fire escape plans, what to do in case of fire
  • Kitchen fire safety – prevention strategies, what to do in case of a kitchen fire, ignition sources, how to respond to burns and burning clothing, and children in the kitchen.

A letter from the Surrey fire chief, included with the package, outlines the purpose of the initiative and reinforces the offer of a free home-safety inspection and smoke-alarm installation.

Implementation costs for the first two years of the program were less than $63,000. On-duty career firefighters deliver the information as part of their routine duties, and donations from community partners have helped to minimize the hard costs, which are less than $3 per visited household.

When Surrey Fire Service formally evaluated this program, HomeSafe had been in effect for two years and had reached 18,473 addresses, representing about 14 per cent of all homes in Surrey (excluding apartments).

High-risk control groups were used to evaluate the impact of the public-education distribution campaign. Based on data from two years prior to the first wave of delivery, the annual rates per 1,000 dwellings in each group were calculated and compared. This process revealed a 64 per cent reduction in the annual rate of fires for HomeSafe houses, which was approximately 4.4 times greater than the reduction (15 per cent) observed in the high-risk controls over the same period. This translated to a reduction in the frequency of house fires in the HomeSafe areas from once every 97 days before the intervention to once every 193 days afterward. The control groups, in comparison, observed a frequency decrease of just 3.7 days per fire.

The HomeSafe results are also encouraging when the 13 fires that did occur in houses visited by Surrey Fire are examined:

  • Smoke alarms were activated in 46.2 per cent of cases, compared to 17.2 per cent pre-intervention – a 169 per cent increase.
  • 38.6 per cent of fires were confined to the object of origin, compared to 11 per cent pre-intervention – a 251 per cent increase.
  • Average loss of $33,486, compared to $66,707 pre-intervention – a 50 per cent decrease, despite the fact that the average property values in the target areas had grown to $405,000 from $380,000.

By extrapolating the findings with respect to reduced fires and the reduced financial impact of the fires that did occur, Surrey estimates that HomeSafe saved $1.26 million in its first 25 months ($28,252 × 13 for fires, and 13.4 × $66,707 for fires that did not occur, assuming a constant annual rate of fires). None of these patterns was matched within the fires that occurred for the high-risk control groups over the same period of time. The detailed findings of the formal evaluation of the first two years of HomeSafe have recently been published in the Journal of Safety Research.

The reduction in fire incidences in the high-risk control areas reflects a series of positive interventions initiated by the Surrey Fire Service, including aggressively boarding up vacant buildings, electrical fire safety inspections at residential marijuana grow operations, a targeted cooking-fire awareness campaign, and community forum work with elderly residents. As a consequence of these programs, and despite a 14 per cent increase in the number of residential structures and a 10 per cent increase in population since 2006, the city has observed a 49 per cent decline in the rate of residential fires per 1,000 dwellings, and a 40 per cent reduction in the rate of fire-related casualties per 10,000 residents.

HomeSafe has proven to be an effective approach that maximizes the efficiency of the firefighter effort involved with the delivery of fire-prevention public education. It directly contrasts with more traditional fire-prevention education campaigns, which commonly involve broad-brush efforts across a wide geographic area and do not target specific problems or groups. This lack of focus not only dilutes any positive effects away from the areas/individuals in greatest need, but also makes it difficult to evaluate the impact. None of these limits applies to the HomeSafe methodology.

With its evidence-based approach to fire prevention, Surrey is bucking the regional and provincial trend of an increasing volume of residential fires. More than 40,000 homes will have received HomeSafe visits by the spring 2012, and the city is pursuing future initiatives to expand on the positive results to date, including:

  • Identification of the highest-risk members of the community through closer examination of the links between fire and the age of individuals, cognitive/physical disability, drug-induced impairment and socio-economic factors
  • Identification of risks based on dwelling types
  • Continued monitoring to ensure the program continues to target the community’s highest risk areas
  • Additional research of applicable best practices to enhance the program’s process, content and delivery, including the use of telemarketing to distribute safety information.

In the same way that seatbelts must be worn on every journey and every new generation of cxhildren is vaccinated, continued funding and focus on smoke alarms is critical. Consequently, the key to successfully countering these issues lies with the development of sustainable prevention strategies that work in partnership with other service providers. To this end, Surrey Fire Service is exploring the feasibility of developing partnerships with a local services, including health-care providers, the insurance industry, hydro providers, library services, and even the RCMP.

The strategy implemented by Surrey Fire Service was undertaken through analysis of local data and the targeted application of existing prevention methods, with minimal additional cost to the fire service. The logic of this approach can be replicated and applied everywhere. Focusing on the highest-risk members of the community will produce the biggest return on investment. With this in mind, there is no excuse for not doing something.

With files from Joe Clare, Charles Jennings, Darryl Plecas and Karin Mark.
 


Len Garis is the fire chief for the City of Surrey, B.C. Contact him at LWGaris@surrey.ca


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