On the surface, the worlds of fire safety and active shooter incidents wouldn’t appear to have a whole lot in common. But, as is often the case in cross-disciplinary risk management, diving below the surface provides more relevant lessons and useful information than anticipated. 

My deep dive began with a one-off statement from a colleague when discussing the challenge of allocating precious financial resources between active shooter prevention and response: “fire trucks don’t prevent fires.” That simple assertion set off a thought experiment and surprising correlation with the budget allocation challenges security professionals and leaders face today.  

Big Red Safety Net?

There are an incredible number of fire trucks and apparatus spread across the United States. According to the NFPA US Fire Department Profile published in 2020, there are over 160,000 fire trucks (pumpers, aerials, and suppression vehicles) in the US. That’s one piece of fire apparatus for every 2,000 Americans. Despite that massive network of apparatus, we still suffer tremendous loss on an annual basis due to fires. In 2019, there were 1.3 million fires in the United States resulting in 3,700 deaths, nearly 17,000 injuries, and $14.8 billion in losses ( https://www.usfa.fema.gov/data/statistics/).

If we still suffer such extensive loss despite significant investment in firefighters and fire apparatus, why do we embrace the continued allocation of valuable resources to them? Why does the public look so fondly on firefighters and fire apparatus despite their inability to prevent fires from occuring? The simple answer is that after centuries of experience with fire, people have accepted an unfortunate reality. 

You Can’t Hold Back the Tide

Fire prevention in the United States represents a significant expenditure of capital and resources. According to the NFPA Research Foundation’s 2017 report, Total Cost of Fire in the United States, the US spends more than $183 billion dollars annually on passive fire protection. This includes fire safety costs in building construction, fire grade products, fire maintenance, and fire retardants. That expenditure represented 1.8% of the gross domestic product of our country during the reporting period. 

The fire statistics in the face of that level of spending prove one thing loud and clear– while our fire prevention efforts may reduce the number of residential and commercial fires we experience, they will never stop fires from occurring. 

Accepting Reality and Developing a Plan

Once the reality set in that we could never completely stop fires from occurring, we needed a plan to respond to and mitigate the damage from the fires that would– despite our best efforts– inevitably occur. The best plan boiled down to providing firefighters with the ability to engage in that tried and true maxim of firefighting: put the wet stuff on the red stuff. 

And to accomplish that, we’ve amassed one of the most impressive fire response networks in history– a system of more than 160,000 fire trucks and nearly 9 million fire hydrants (https://www.verisk.com/insurance/visualize/verisk-records-8-9-million-fire-hydrants-in-the-united-states/). We built that far-reaching infrastructure despite the tacit acknowledgement that none of those ~9.2 million objects will ever stop a fire from occurring. Instead, we’ve embraced the reality that we must do two things: invest in fire prevention while at the same time ensuring we have the ability to respond to the fires that will inevitably occur.

The Unacceptable Alternative

What would happen if we put all of our resources into prevention and ignored the reality of fire inevitability? As is often the case, history provides some powerful examples– and one is particularly relevant as we are quickly approaching the 150th anniversary of its occurrence. In 1871, what is believed to be a small fire that started in a barn quickly exploded into the conflagration that would come to be known as The Great Chicago Fire– a disaster that killed 300 people, burned nearly 3.5 square miles of Chicago to the ground, and caused $4.7 billion in damage (in 2020 dollars).

Unfortunately for the city and the 100,000 people who would soon find themselves homeless, Chicago had just 17 horse-drawn pumpers to protect the entire city when the fire occurred. 

Our Chicago

In the world of active shooter incidents, Columbine stands out as our Great Chicago Fire. Circumstances conspired and came together to highlight that the tactics and resources of the day were not only unable to prevent the active shooter incident from happening, but were woefully anemic in responding to and stopping the incident (or saving lives in the aftermath). In the wake of that incident and subsequent active shooter incidents that have followed, more and more money has flowed into active shooter prevention. Think of how vastly things have changed just in America’s schools. From robust security and visitor screening procedures to complex door locking and video surveillance systems, billions of dollars are being spent on prevention. 

But if there is one significant lesson that the fire safety world is holding out for us, it is that we must embrace the uncomfortable reality that despite our best efforts, we will never fully stop active shooter incidents from occurring. 

The Active Shooter Fire Truck- A Common Operating Picture

Once we accept the fact that we can never fully prevent active shooter events from occurring, logic would dictate that we are obligated to have a tool in place that allows us to respond to and manage both the incident and its aftermath. In the world of active shooter response, that tool is a common operating picture that allows first responders from different agencies and disciplines to communicate and coordinate their response– even when they’ve never worked together or been to the incident location before. 

Collaborative Response GraphicsⓇ are precisely that tool. Already in use for years across the country in thousands of schools, commercial buildings, and other pieces of critical infrastructure, they are akin to digital fire hydrants and fire trucks. They are simple to use and work the same whether you are in New York City or Beaconsfield, Iowa (population 18). 

A Balanced and Safer Future

Just as every town and city in America has a fire truck despite billions of dollars spent on fire prevention, the future of active shooter response includes a Collaborative Response Graphic for every location where an active shooter or other critical incident is a possibility. Security and prevention measures will certainly remain part of the equation when it comes to active shooter incidents in America, but we must also acknowledge that prevention will never be 100% successful.

And just as we would never expect firefighters to show up without fire hoses or access to water, we can no longer expect first responders to arrive at active shooter incidents without a common operating picture and common language. 

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