Urban, Social Data Helps Reduce Fire and Safety Risk

Together with Portland State University’s School of Urban Studies and Planning, Portland, Ore.’s Fire and Rescue Bureau is strategically using public data to reduce emergency call volume and improve city vibrancy.

by / February 19, 2019

MetroLab Network has partnered with Government Technology to bring its readers a segment called the MetroLab Innovation of the Month Series, which highlights impactful tech, data, and innovation projects underway between cities and universities. If you’d like to learn more or contact the project leads, please contact MetroLab at info@metrolabnetwork.org for more information.

In this month’s installment of the Innovation of the Month series, we explore Portland Fire and Rescue’s Blueprint for Success, a new initiative aimed at creating preventative emergency planning in Portland, Ore.  

MetroLab’s Executive Director Ben Levine spoke with Robyn Burek, principal management analyst for Portland Fire and Rescue; Megan Horst, assistant professor, Nohad A. Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University; Eric Pedersen, captain of Fire Station 22; and Mike Myers, former fire chief for the city of Portland, to learn more. 

Ben Levine: Could you please describe what the Blueprint for Success project is? Who is involved in this effort?  

Robyn Burek: The Blueprint for Success is a project that tasks Portland Fire and Rescue (PF&R) firefighters across all ranks to consider the root causes that are contributing to an increase in emergency call volume, specific to their Fire Management Area (FMA). 

Based on the data, we know that social indicators such as poverty, lower education, mental health, isolation and marginalization contribute to increased risk for fire and emergency medical response. We also know that we live in the 26th largest U.S. city, with a population of approximately 650,000, and therefore the demographics and types of emergency responses will vary widely across a city of our size. Hence, it is important that each station get to know the unique strengths and needs of the specific communities that they serve.

Chief Mike Myers: Blueprint for Success originated from the bureau-wide goal for zero fire deaths and how we might achieve that. It was clear that a citywide approach was necessary, but a single front was not the solution. We would need to build plans for each neighborhood individually, specific to the needs and threats in that neighborhood. We also found that the leaders of the fire stations were under-utilized. Their primary focus was emergency response, and the prevention effort was the sole responsibility of the prevention division. The prevention division is not focused in neighborhoods directly, they are focused on building and occupancy types. The final reason for the Blueprint for Success was the idea that we might be able to predict fire based on livability or vibrancy scoring. This is new to our industry. The more vibrant an area the less likely violent injury or fatalities will happen. 

Today, fire captains are asked to manage their response areas as if they were the fire chief of the area; meet the people, learn about the community and link fire predictability data with hazard reduction plans.

Burek: With this project, we’ve partnered with Portland State University’s School of Urban Studies and Planning to help us do three specific things: assemble data specific to each station’s FMA; assist us with surveying the community inside each FMA; and help us strategize ways to improve public health, mental health, racial equity, community safety, and access to housing and other resources for each FMA. By addressing these areas of need, we hope to see long-term reductions in our call volume, and the cultivation of a healthier and more vibrant city. 

Our partnership with PSU is also just the beginning. We are also seeking collaborative opportunities with other city bureaus including the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS), the Office of Community and Civic Life, Portland Bureau of Emergency Management, Portland Bureau of Transportation and the Joint Office of Homeless Services. In addition to our city partners, we encourage each station to identify community organizations and nonprofits that work within their FMA with whom we can also partner. Ultimately, this project is too big for the Fire Bureau to tackle on its own. We are not social workers or counselors, nor are we city planners. But we do hold a piece of the puzzle and we believe that with the right partners we can build a more vibrant city. 

 

Former Chief Myers and Robyn Burek of PF&R, speaking to an audience about the Blueprint for Success and hosting the first Idea Launch event in November 2018. Courtesy of Robyn Burek. 

Levine: Can you describe some of the pressures that motivated you to address this particular challenge? 

Burek: PF&R started the Blueprint for Success project on the idea that vibrant cities don’t burn, and healthy, happy communities are less reliant on emergency services. As PF&R’s call volume continues to increase (about 28 percent in the past six years), we recognize that this is in part due to population growth (about 17 percent in the past 10 years), but we also acknowledge that social indicators are a key factor for the rise in call volume. Therefore, we have a choice as a fire bureau: We can either continue to be reactive and simply respond to the rising call volume, or we can assess the root causes and underlying systems at play to try to build a more vibrant, healthy community.

Captain Eric Pedersen: The demands on the fire service are changing rapidly and our historic response models and business practices are often struggling to adapt. The needs of each fire station’s local community can differ greatly, so the Blueprint for Success is designed to identify specific needs and generate new ideas for addressing them from the lowest level. Allowing station personnel the autonomy and authority to innovate within their specific communities will be a more effective and efficient way of adapting to our changing roles. 

Megan Horst: I really appreciate the focus on root causes and underlying systems in this planning process. Often a lot of city action is reactive, or departments end up doing things just because they have done them that way before. The Blueprint for Success Project is a different initiative that asks us to understand why some people are more vulnerable than others, and to identify upstream interventions that reduce these vulnerabilities and enhance people’s safety and resilience. It is really thinking outside the box.

 

Captain Eric Pedersen of Station 22 and Battalion Chief Steve Bregman are chatting with a presenter, a woman from the local neighborhood association who presented an idea to safely remove needles off the streets. They were able to supply her with some caps and also share information about PF&R's new needles drop box that was installed at Station 22 — a solution that came out of the Blueprint for Success project. Courtesy of Robyn Burek. 

Levine: What kind of data are you exploring and why? What have been some of your initial findings in your research, and is this changing how you view the issue? 

Burek: We asked PSU to help us collect data on six different categories for each FMA: urban form, demographics, livability, social vulnerability, homelessness and medical/fire calls. 

Urban form tells the story of residential density, commercial density, and how industrialized or wooded an area is. These factors indicate a different level and type of risk, as well as where fire and EMS crews are likely to get dispatched to the most.  

Second, PSU collects census data on the demographics of each neighborhood. A single FMA can include two or more neighborhoods and the demographics often vary widely depending on the neighborhood.

Next, PF&R looks at livability. For the time being, PF&R and PSU have agreed to define livability to include access to food, transportation options and bike/walk scores. But we also realize that this is a limited definition of livability, and PF&R and PSU have been discussing how to enrich this category with better data.

Fourth, PSU looks up the social vulnerability index (SVI) for each neighborhood through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. The SVI is an indicator of both vulnerability and resiliency within a community. Most surprising is to see how nearby neighborhoods can differ greatly in terms of their SVI. 

Last, we have PSU provide us a summary of our call data. One category is homelessness: How many homeless-related calls were responded to in each FMA? The other two categories are medical- and fire-related calls. PSU provides PF&R with a list of the top five codes for medical and fire responses in each FMA. What’s interesting about this is that one FMA might respond to more “trouble breathing”-related calls than another FMA, and we’ve been able to tie that back to urban form. For instance, FMA 22 is highly industrialized, which means that there are more particles floating in the air, and this is likely contributing to an increase in breathing issues for its residents.

Ultimately, these six categories help to set a foundation, but it is an incomplete story without surveying the community and conducting community outreach. Community outreach is our last step in collecting data.

Horst: Robyn described a lot of the data collection very well. I will just add that PSU students will be implementing surveys of community members this winter to find out what they know about Portland Fire and Rescue and to get their input on the Blueprint for Success. This will be an exciting and challenging part of the project.

 

Infographic explaining the Idea Launch process to inform the Blueprint for Success. Courtesy of Robyn Burek.

Levine: Are you aware how findings developed in this project are/will impact city planning and/or development in this topic? If yes, how and where?

Burek: PF&R believes that urban planning is a major key to building vibrant cities. We’ve initiated talks with BPS and there is interest from both sides to collaborate. For example, one initiative is to compare our data on social vulnerability populations across neighborhoods to ensure we’re both capturing the needs and the issues as best and consistently as we can. Fire responses tend to overlap with areas that are socially vulnerable, and it could provide a different and useful lens to BPS. But even more interesting is a discussion about our two bureaus creating a predictive model for gentrification. One of the risks we face as we work to create a vibrant community is consequentially pushing out the residents of that community. Along with that, we’re discussing ways of how to mitigate and prevent gentrification from occurring. For instance, perhaps we partner with other organizations to not only provide local jobs, but to also provide workforce and skills training so local residents can get good-paying jobs located in their neighborhoods and can earn higher wages, allowing them to stay in an inflated housing market. Those are just some of the conversations we’re having with BPS and the direction that we’re going in relation to the Blueprint for Success and this concept of vibrant cities.

To date our collaborative efforts have mostly entailed support from PF&R to create narrower streets in order to promote safer streets for pedestrians. Most fire departments have not historically been behind an initiative like this because it makes it more difficult for emergency vehicles to respond to a scene. But we have also committed to a vision zero initiative that includes zero traffic deaths, and in order for us to achieve that goal we must support safer streets and prioritize prevention. At this time, we’ve identified a potential area of the city to use as a pilot. BPS is currently developing some plans for that area and has invited PF&R to the table. 

Horst: The project is still young, and I am excited to think about the possible impacts to city planning and development. Fire and rescue and planning are fields with plenty of overlap. In fact, planning for fire prevention has had a great influence on urban planning, from building code to street design. We are now entering a new era of this interplay, which might include challenging some old paradigms and developing new ways of thinking and doing that make our cities more livable and residents as safe as possible in today’s context.

Robyn’s mention of PF&R’s support for creating narrower streets, or “road diets,” is a perfect example of adaptation by both fields to make cities safer for children, the elderly, people with vision and mobility impairments, and people who are walking and biking. There is plenty of opportunity to do more “road diets” in a lot of places in Portland to help make it safer for people to get around, and ultimately lead to fewer automobile crashes, pedestrian deaths, etc.; plus it would increase neighborhood walkability and cut down on air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, part of long-term city livability. But it will require that Fire and Rescue adapt to skinnier roads and turning radii — and I think it is awesome they are willing to do that.

Another obvious area of overlap is when you bring a social equity or social vulnerability lens to the work, it becomes very clear that renters, folks with lower incomes, with less education, communities who have experienced historical oppression, etc., are also more vulnerable to fire risk. So what can both Fire and Rescue and BPS do about that?

Levine: What was the most surprising thing you learned during this process? 

Captain Pedersen: By necessity, the fire service has a “top down,” military-style organizational structure. It works very well for emergency response but can stifle innovation and engagement from lower levels within the organization. As this project developed, I was surprised at how quickly our lowest-level employees started generating ideas and independently seeking opportunities to address community needs. 

Horst: One cool thing we have learned is that there is a lot of synergy among good urban planning and planning for the future of Fire and Rescue. By that I mean both ask questions like: What is our vision of a safe, livable city? What strategies get us there?

I also have been humbled by the willingness of Portland Fire and Rescue leaders and staff — from the chief and administrator to captains and firefighters themselves — to deeply examine their role as public servants in these dynamic times. That takes courage.

Burek: The most surprising thing that I’ve witnessed during this process has been the responses from the other city bureaus. Most bureaus have priorities and projects that they work on separate from the rest of the organization, and while there certainly is some collaboration that takes place between bureaus, ultimately the mission of each bureau is different. What I’ve found encouraging is to watch other bureau directors pitch the Blueprint for Success in director meetings. It’s no longer just a PF&R initiative. It’s gradually becoming a citywide initiative. And along with that there’s a shift in thinking that I see taking place where bureaus are beginning to consider the larger picture that ties us all together. There comes a challenge with that, though, to rethink how we work together and how we shift our money to focus more on prevention and quality-of-life initiatives like parks. We’re not quite there yet, but the conversation has been started.

 

Infographic explaining the Blueprint for Success. Courtesy of Robyn Burek.

Levine: Where will this project go from here?

Burek: Our fire chief and the founder of the Blueprint for Success, Mike Myers, has announced his retirement. My hope is that this project is far enough along that the next chief will see the value and continue to endorse it. At this time, we’re set to engage the next four FMAs this fall and bring PSU back to assist us. In addition to working with PSU, we’re also holding our second Idea Launch event in spring 2019. Idea Launch is an open mic night that’s held in the bay of a fire station where firefighters, city bureaus and community members are invited to pitch their ideas. Speakers are allotted five minutes to share their ideas on how to improve community safety and address mental health, public health, racial equity, or affordable housing and access to resources, and then the audience members can roundtable with the speakers to discuss how to get the ideas off the ground. 

Horst: One thing that is great about this partnership is that it is a long-term relationship; the plan is for PSU to work with PF&R on the Blueprint for at least several years. In future years, our masters of urban planning students will likely implement a similar research process to the one described above with different FMAs, building on what we learned in this round. To me, long-term, mutually beneficial relationships are the best kind of city-university partnerships. 

Burek: In addition to the four new FMAs that will engage with PSU this fall, and the second Idea Launch that is scheduled in the spring, we will continue to work on our pilot with BPS and collaborate with the other bureaus. Over time, the Blueprint for Success project may be tweaked and improved upon, but ultimately my goal is to ensure that the philosophy behind it remains steadfast. And in the words of Chief Myers, that philosophy is that vibrant cities don’t burn.

About MetroLab: MetroLab Network introduces a new model for bringing data, analytics and innovation to local government: a network of institutionalized, cross-disciplinary partnerships between cities/counties and their universities. Its membership includes more than 40 such partnerships in the United States, ranging from mid-size cities to global metropolises. These city-university partnerships focus on research, development and deployment of projects that offer technologically and analytically based solutions to challenges facing urban areas including: inequality in income, health, mobility, security and opportunity; aging infrastructure; and environmental sustainability and resiliency. MetroLab was launched as part of the White House’s 2015 Smart Cities Initiative. Learn more at metrolabnetwork.org or on Twitter @metrolabnetwork.

Ben Levine Executive Director, MetroLab Network

Ben Levine is the executive director of MetroLab Network. Previously he was a policy adviser at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, where he was responsible for policy development pertaining to state and local government finance, with a focus on infrastructure policy. He worked closely with the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy on the organization and launch of MetroLab Network. Prior to that Ben worked at Morgan Stanley. He is a graduate of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.