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Fire department’s Community Risk Reduction branch provides personalized approach to emergency prevention

The Charlottesville Fire Department’s Community Risk Reduction branch has been working over the past year to identify areas of inequity in Charlottesville neighborhoods in hopes of preventing emergencies before they happen.

Joe Powers, Deputy Chief of Community Risk Reduction for Charlottesville Fire Department, said that community risk reduction focuses mainly on public engagement, community partnerships, and comprehensive risk assessment.

“Recently, the fire service as an industry started to move towards community risk reduction and less focus on fire prevention,” Powers said. “Charlottesville is one of the few departments throughout the country that has a ‘true’ community risk reduction branch.”

For example, if an area of the city had a high prevalence of heart attacks, it would be important to provide education about healthy habits to that specific neighborhood and teach residents hands-only CPR techniques, Powers said.

In 2017, Charlottesville Fire Department went through a self assessment and strategic planning process and determined that the community would benefit from a risk reduction model. The department hired Powers and created its Community Risk Reduction Branch in January 2020.

“Rather than looking at it from an umbrella of the entire city, I like to look at the neighborhoods. So we take each of the 19 established neighborhoods in the city and we understand what their primary challenges are, and we start to deploy resources,” Powers said. “The important part about community risk reduction is it’s not a blanketed approach to the city, it’s not a program just because we think it’s right, it’s a program because we’ve looked at the data, we’ve identified the problem.”

Powers said that the key is in using Charlottesville-specific data, such as real estate data and census records, as well as EMS response reports. With this information, the department can customize its approach based on the demographics of certain neighborhoods and the prevalence of certain types of emergencies within them.

“We have more than 100 firefighters now in the city of Charlottesville and we just hired a recruit academy of 20, which is the largest academy that the city has ever hired. So that bolsters our potential for impact in the community,” he said. “We will be able to engage our community with intention.”

Because of the research the Community Risk Assessment branch has done, the department can provide education to residents more efficiently.

“Rather than knocking on every door on a street to talk to folks about smoke alarms and looking for people who don’t have working smoke alarms, we developed a risk assessment for the entire city to tell us which specific homes in the city of Charlottesville likely don’t have a working smoke alarm. We’re going to try to find the homes that are most at risk and knock on those doors first,” Powers said.

Powers emphasized the importance of working with community partners in community risk reduction programming.

“What community risk reduction is all about is let’s understand our neighborhood, let’s understand what people experience every day, and let’s customize our services and our programs to meet their needs,” Powers said. “But we also have to realize that the fire department can’t be everything to everybody.”

The branch frequently works with the Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue Squad (CARS) in their Frequent 911 Utilizers Program. This program identifies residents who use 911 most often.

“If someone’s calling 911 30 times a month, it’s likely we’re not providing them with the services they need because it’s outside of our control,” Powers said.

The department works with CARS, UVa Health, the Department of Social Services, and the Department of Human Services, among other partners to provide services to individuals and solutions to having to frequently call 911.

He gave the example of a disabled Army veteran that the program had identified.

“He was our first success story,” Powers said. “He was calling 911 almost 30 times a month for two years for firefighters to carry him up the stairs. He was a really nice guy, and he just didn’t have anybody else.”

The Gym, a local nonprofit gym, agreed to provide him with free workout training so he could get healthy and to carry him up and down the stairs of his third floor apartment.

“Since the middle of July, I think that he’s only called two times,” Powers said. “He’s now healthier, he has better access to services, and he’s no longer relying on the 911 services to get him up to the third floor.”

Powers said they also worked with a couple who would call 911 frequently for basic healthcare needs.

“We partnered with UVa Health, and now UVa Health is providing them in-home physician assistance rather than them leaving the house and going to the emergency room, which was not the right place to be,” Powers said.

“If I can have a conversation and get somebody on board with what we’re doing, then that decreases our workload and expands our services as a city,” he said.

Powers said that while the branch is constantly doing research and collecting new and updated data, there are a few areas they have been particularly studying recently. For example, they are studying where pedestrians get hit most often in crosswalks. They are also collecting data about which households have disabled residents.

“I never want to say that it’s done. Almost every day we’re updating and refining our data. Sometimes we’re finding that we’re wrong in certain areas and sometimes we find that we need to expand in other areas,” Powers said.


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