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Community Risk Assessment: The Value and Approach

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Leonard N. Chan
October 3, 2022

Developing a community risk assessment should never be a checking-the-box exercise. A community risk assessment has a bigger role than meeting accreditation or grant requirements. Information within a community risk assessment for public safety serves as the foundation for crafting strategies to improve public preparedness and resiliency for emergencies as well as the justification in building response capabilities. The scope of a community risk assessment needs to reach beyond the traditional topics of crime and fires by evaluating any area where a jurisdiction is expected to provide services such as public health, weather events and civil disturbances. The process in building a community risk assessment must be built on a solid data-informed methodology to fulfill its potential.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) defines three steps in its guidance for the Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) process: 1) identify threats and hazards, 2) give threats and hazards context and 3) establish capability targets. Threats and hazards generally fall in the categories of natural hazards, technological hazards and human-caused hazards. Hazardous materials release, which is the focus for the remainder of this article, represents a technological hazard. The level of risk based on likelihood and impact for each hazard varies by community. Thus, each community has an obligation to customize how it prioritizes addressing different hazards through mitigation, preparation and response. The Vision 20/20 Project states that “uncommon risks that may occur every 5-20 years” needs to be featured as part of the risk assessment due to their potential impact.

For many communities, the release of hazardous materials may be considered one of those “uncommon risks”, but for the city of Houston, hazardous materials releases rank as a high priority to address due to elevated likelihood and impact. The Houston Fire Department recognized that assessing the risk of hazardous materials involves more than reviewing the past. This is in accordance with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)’s standard on community risk assessment and community risk reduction that specifies that the “root causes” should be factored into the risk assessment. The Houston Fire Department enlisted the support of the University of Houston’s Hobby School to support these efforts. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a hazardous materials risk assessment includes the hazards identification of the following components (chemical identity, chemical location, chemical quantity and nature of hazard), vulnerability analysis (vulnerable zones, human populations, critical facilities and environment) and risk analysis (probability and severity). The Houston Fire Department provided its emergency response data to the research teams from the Hobby School for analysis, which includes information such as location, timing and duration of incidents along with response times.  Datasets from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Division provided the research teams supplemental information regarding transportation-related hazardous materials incidents, especially those on highways. Along with historic data, the teams looked at the stationary sources of potential hazardous materials releases. 

Due to the lack of zoning regulations, the location of hazardous materials facilities within the city of Houston has been significantly dispersed. The research teams evaluated Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know (EPCRA)’s Tier II sites along with the facilities requiring hazardous occupancy permits through the fire code to identify stationary sites that have the potential for hazardous materials releases in each zip code. The city of Houston accounts for over 1,800 Tier II sites in which a smaller subset is subject to additional regulations such as being required to provide chemical accident prevention plans or emergency release notifications. As of early 2020, approximately 125 facilities have obtained a hazardous occupancy permit. The Houston Fire Department and the research teams recognize these figures undercount the number of hazardous materials facilities present. Certain facilities have been grandfathered from regulations, but also identifying and remedying non-compliance has been difficult. 

The Hobby School research teams placed significant attention on the vulnerability analysis part of the risk assessment equation. This involved an assessment of critical infrastructure and population affected. Threats to critical infrastructure may have significant impacts as these facilities, as defined at the state level, have “functions vital to the security, governance, public health and safety, economy or morale of the state or the nation.”  Schools, hospitals, assisted living, energy sector, highways and the port were deemed the most relevant critical infrastructure to be featured in the risk assessment. Along with mapping population density, the research team relied on data from the Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) to analyze the population affected. Socially vulnerable populations have an increased likelihood for requiring additional support before, during and after a hazardous materials incident. 

Drawing from the various sources related to the historic data, sources of risk and community vulnerability, the research team created a normalized hazardous materials risk score for each zip code.  The findings illustrated the gap in matching the Houston Fire Department’s response capabilities with community risk. The community risk assessment allowed the Houston Fire Department to justify its requests to improve its capabilities as an investment in protecting the community in an effective, efficient and equitable manner rather than as an expenditure. In February 2021, a new dedicated unit for hazardous materials response entered service for the Houston Fire Department, representing this program’s first expansion since its establishment over 40 years earlier.

Author: Leonard N. Chan MPA currently chairs the Texas Center for Public Safety Excellence Consortium and is the Houston Fire Department accreditation manager.  He earned his Bachelor of Arts from Rice University and Master of Public Administration from University of Houston. [email protected]

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