GIS for Reducing Risk in the Community

Blog Post created by b_martinez-esristaff Employee on Jan 24, 2018

by Mike Cox, Esri Fire and EMS Industry Manager and Jeff Baranyi, Esri Public Safety Assistance Program Operations Manager


We realize that public safety agencies face challenges that are more complex and unpredictable than ever before. These events involve social unrest, public health issues, and severe weather events that create an environment where missions and priorities change daily. The approaches that organizations have relied on for years are no longer as effective to secure our communities.


Modern challenges require a modern approach. Agencies and organizations need tools and operational capabilities to adapt to volatile conditions and support a variety of mission requirements. Today, we must be able to identify threats, collaborate and unify operations, rapidly respond to events, communicate with the public, and analyze the success of those efforts. Through the power of geospatial technology, organizations can now adopt a smarter, more integrative approach to safety and security. With the right technology, data, people, and processes, every community can become a safe community.


The challenges for public safety agencies are complex, and they continue to evolve each day. There are more demands on agencies—from adapting to an aging population to the increasing severity and frequency of events that we must respond to and the fact that the role of public safety is changing as we strive to keep our communities livable. The health of a community depends on the effective operation of its public safety agencies, and GIS can improve that effectiveness.

One concept for addressing these emerging issues efficiently is the establishment of a comprehensive community risk reduction (CRR) program. CRR coordinates emergency operations with the goal of preventing and mitigating the effects of an event across the community and at the fire station level. Involvement of frontline personnel is critical for field data collection. GIS can provide solutions to lessen the impact of the day-to-day activities of the frontline personnel.

The benefits of a comprehensive CRR program include bettering the health of the community and improving firefighter safety, which can impact the accreditation process. An effective CRR program allows us to identify new and emerging hazards and provide data to influence the budgetary process, track the changing demographics of our community, and identify under-served populations.


CRR is not limited to fire prevention. This program can be applied to any risk you identify. Consider the risk assessment for fires occurring in single-family dwellings. Might a similar assessment, including demographic and CAD data, be applied to fall prevention or any health problem for which data is available? The CRR process allows us to focus our efforts on the population in need efficiently.


Fire and emergency medical services exist not only to respond to emergency incidents but also to proactively prevent or mitigate the impact of such incidents within their communities. CRR provides a more focused approach to reducing specific risks. In addition, a comprehensive CRR program involving community partners, responders, and other staff can result in an organizational culture that recognizes the importance of reducing risks within a community.


This is the CRR planning cycle provided by Vision 20/20. Like many of our planning activities, it continually assesses the community, prioritizes risk, implements risk reduction activities, and evaluates those activities. This process may influence an agency's accreditation process. The CRR process provides a focused approach to reducing specific risks.




The process begins with identifying the risk. Risks can be man-made or naturally occurring. These can include preventable injuries, controllable health risks (e.g., obesity, diabetes) mass casualty incidents (e.g., active shooter), major hazmat releases, and terrorism as well as severe weather, flooding, hurricanes, and earthquakes.


Risk assessment allows public safety agencies to prioritize those risks. This initial step in preparedness allows for mitigation efforts, planning, and the ability make data-driven decisions to properly deploy resources. This is accomplished by gathering information about what is occurring within your community. The data will be used to identify both current risks and trends based on historical information. Typically, there will be many resources from which to acquire the data that's necessary to identify current and potential risks.


The following data is available for analysis:

  • Fire Department Incident Data
  • Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) Data
  • Emergency Management Disaster-Related Data
  • Public Health Data


GIS provides the ability to present this data in a visual perspective that easily communicates the risk within a community. It also allows public safety officials to analyze multiple datasets to determine how these risks will impact citizens, infrastructure, and the environment.


How would you prefer to assess risk? How should we view and analyze our data? Here is some National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) data:



What does this view tell us? It lists the fires that occurred, the incurred property loss, and the incident type. Or is the following visual perspective better? It provides a better way to easily assess and communicate the risk within specific areas of a community.



This map contains the same data and provides a visual reference to the fire by incident type, occupancy type, and location. Here we can easily identify areas of our community that have concentrated risk or risks of a certain type.


When evaluating fire department incident data, it will be necessary to identify those factors contributing to the severity of the hazards and those populations at greatest risk. We accomplish this by developing a community profile. This profile will include demographic data such as age, gender, income, and other socioeconomic and cultural information. The data from a tax parcel layer can be added to evaluate housing type, age of structures, and density.


You can find demographic information in many places. One excellent source is Esri's Tapestry Segmentation. Tapestry helps you understand your community's lifestyle choices such as what the people in your community buy and how they spend their free time. Tapestry classifies US residential neighborhoods into 67 unique segments based on demographic and socioeconomic characteristics. Tapestry can help you gain more insights so you can identify your community members and under-served markets. You can also get higher response rates because you avoid less profitable areas.



Another component of conducting a community risk assessment is to identify specific target hazards within your service area. These are sometimes referred to as critical facilities. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) defines these as "facilities in either the public or private sector that provide essential products and services to the general public; are otherwise necessary to preserve the welfare and quality of life in the community; or fulfill important public safety, emergency response, and/or disaster recovery functions."


The following map depicts various locations of target hazards based on defined criteria using a scoring system. In this case, properties are color‐coded in accordance with their score, making it easier to quickly identify those with the highest levels of risk. Another option would be to generate a map depicting only those facilities with the highest levels of risk rather than all properties and structures.



Esri has a target hazard assessment tool available. The Target Hazard Analysis tool uses tax parcel data from the assessor's office as input into the analysis. Tax parcel information includes the property boundaries, use description, building area, number of floors, and assessed value. These attributes are used in the analysis to determine the following hazard criteria:

  • Occupancy type
  • Life safety
  • Fire flow requirements
  • Economic impact
  • Building height
  • Building area


In addition, this tax parcel may contain information on heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems; roof construction; basements; residential elevators; and other datasets that may prove useful.


And if a locality needs specific site data that's not available through tax parcel information, the data can also be collected in the field through the Collector for ArcGIS application on any mobile device and submitted in real time to the evaluation tool. Collecting lock box locations and sprinkler and standpipe connections can be done in a paperless environment, placing the feature on the map in real time.


This assessment is now used to focus efforts on reducing the risk for the population identified. GIS can be used to manage that reduction effort efficiently.



  1. Esri: esri.com
  2. Vision 20/20: http://www.strategicfire.org
  3. American Housing Survey: http://www.census.gov/programs‐surveys/ahs/
  4. American Community Survey: http://www.census.gov/acs/www/
  5. Oliver, D. (2011, November). FireRescue Magazine, 42–47
  6. United States Census Bureau: www.census.gov
  7. American FactFinder: http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml