Your Data Toolbox in the Age of COVID-19: Feeding Your Community Risk Assessment

While we owe an immeasurable debt of gratitude to our healthcare workers, first responders, and grocery store employees in this war against COVID-19, we should also offer a tip of the hat to the data scientists working in the background. If you're a nerd (and proud of it) like me, then you know it has been impossible not to be fascinated by all the data, statistics, and visualizations being used to combat this virus. Through all of this, one thing is clear… data is king (and queen!)

I want to share one message to everyone working in the prevention space: Pay attention!

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Every day, new data emerge to guide decisions about how to protect our communities. The community-level information is critical in planning effective COVID-19 mitigation. Data help you tell a story about your demographics, economy, critical infrastructure and other profiles so you can make informed decisions to increase community safety during the pandemic. That alone is gold – and it gets better. Once virus-related threats have passed, this local knowledge provides a solid start in building and updating your all-important Community Risk Assessment.

Community Risk Assessment (CRA) is the critical first step in the Community Risk Reduction (CRR) process. It requires a deep dive into local data to be able to paint an accurate picture of the people, the hazards, and the capabilities in each unique community. The need to collect and analyze data often positions CRA as the most challenging component of CRR but the pay-off for the expended effort multiplies in value. Data allow CRR teams to create plans that address the true risks in each community to ensure resource deployment with have the intended impact. NFPA 1300 Standard on Community Risk Assessment and Community Risk Reduction Plan Development is the go-to resource for anyone eager to learn more. Check it out (for free!) for details about community profiles and the CRA process.

Communities who entered the fight against COVID-19 with a CRA in hand have a wealth of data at their fingertips to inform mitigation efforts. They know where their high-risk residents live. They are conscious of neighborhoods in which residents lack English-proficiency. They can identify buildings available to serve as temporary medical sites. They have a sense of neighborhoods in which residents rely on public transportation, have a grocery store within walking distance, have access to urgent medical care, and may be better prepared to cope in an economic downturn. Summer Mahr, Public Educator for Largo Fire Rescue has found her local CRA to be extremely helpful. “We use this data to increase awareness to our citizens and educate both the vulnerable and younger population on the importance of being safer at home. Our younger population will realize just how many vulnerable neighbors are living in their community, and we encourage the community to check on their at-risk neighbors (from 6ft. away of course) to see if they need any groceries, supplies, or other needs.”

If your community has not completed the CRA process yet, do not throw in the towel. While the data may not be presented in the neat bow-topped package of a CRA, you can still benefit from the wealth of information surfacing every day during this crisis. Take a look at the 9 community profiles outlined in NFPA 1300 and arm your team with a chart or spreadsheet where information can be dumped as it pops up. Keep in mind that it is important to keep track of information related to both hazards and capacity.

While this is far from an all-inclusive list, consider these data points to get your creative juices flowing about how to leverage available information to guide your efforts now and in the future:

  • Demographic Data: Response to COVID-19 has resulted in a wealth of information-sharing about the people who live in our communities. In La Crosse, Wisconsin, Community Risk Educator Pat Corran speaks to the value of demographic data. “Our population density data has been very helpful in our response to the COVID crisis. It helps give us some real insight as to where this thing could really ramp up and we work even harder to reiterate social distancing measures in these areas.” Some additional demographic indicators to consider include aging populations, residents who may struggle financially during the outbreak, people who may not have access to information due to language isolation, and families experiencing social vulnerability.
  • Building Stock: Which buildings in your community have shifted into a higher risk category because they house essential services, important manufacturing, serve as a vital link in the supply chain, or provide critical economic value to the community? Pay attention to the buildings that have been re-purposed as meal distribution centers, medical facilities, and isolation housing. Derrick Sawyer, Director of Fire in Trenton, New Jersey relies on his CRA to address a broad range of issues. “We have concerns about our homeless population living on the streets and in shelters. While we have shelters identified in our emergency operations plan, social distancing requires additional spaces. Our CRA can help to identify buildings that can be re-purpose as alternative shelters.”
  • Business Continuity: We can't ignore the interwoven relationship between community health and economy. During this crisis, take note of business closures that are impacting the overall economic health of the community, businesses have been able to pivot to implement creative solutions to stay afloat, and businesses who have supported community members with donations, space, or service during this time of need.
  • Weather Hazards: Mother nature doesn't take a break for pandemics. What are the weather-related hazards to keep top-of-mind? Consider aligning this data with your building stock data and demographics to ensure you have a plan for shelters should they be needed in case of a weather emergency.
  • Transportation: Consider the modes of travel on which your residents rely. Are people able to get to grocery stores and medical appointments in neighborhoods in which residents typically rely on public transportation? Are COVID-19 testing sites and meal pickup locations set up to accommodate residents who do drive? Also, we know motor vehicle crashes top the list of incidents to which EMS and Fire Department personnel respond during times of health and prosperity. With stay-at-home orders, are motor vehicle crashes still an issue in your community? Do data reveal trouble spots more related to road troubles than traffic volume that should be considered in future CRR plans?

And, of course, do not forget about capacity! Every rich CRA includes information about the abilities of public safety response agencies and community service organizations to respond to and reduce risks. This pandemic has posed an incredible challenge to communities across the world. We are all new to this and we are coming up with innovative solutions every day. Keep track of new strategies, hare-brained schemes, and lofty ideas. A failed attempt may be one tweak away from becoming a major success but this may be lost if you don't track your efforts.

The NFPA CRR team would love to hear from you. If you have additional ideas for your CRA data toolbox or CRR during these uncertain times, reach out to

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Karen Berard-Reed
Senior Strategist, Community Risk Reduction Lead

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