Author(s): Lucian Deaton. Published on November 4, 2014.

I RECENTLY TALKED TO A FIREWISE COMMUNITY leader in Texas about how her group should define success. She asked me if her community was failing the expectations of Firewise if homeowner association board meetings included debate about what constitutes successful property mitigation.

As she explained, her developing community includes residents who are adopting the principles of Firewise—NFPA’s wildfire outreach program that brings together at-risk residents—for yard maintenance, and others who are not. Other residents argue for natural landscaping techniques, which call for native plants and limited human impact. Some lots remain overgrown as they await development. I reassured her that residents debating for the first time about how best to apply the principles of Firewise in their community is itself a measure of success—moving from general awareness of wildfire risk to learning and action.

It struck me that questions related to effective metrics for preparedness programs are part of larger questions on the overall success of those programs. We aren’t alone in wondering how to properly measure our accomplishments. The question has unfolded recently on NFPA’s LinkedIn page discussion board for wildland fire management, Firewise, and Fire Adapted Communities. (Join NFPA’s official LinkedIn page and its discussion boards on a range of issues.) Jim Funk, a wildfire mitigation specialist with Virginia’s Department of Forestry, posed a question: “How do I measure and show the real outcomes of prevention?”

The discussion has explored a number of topics, including participation rates, message output versus its impact on behavior, social cohesion, longevity of commitment, regulatory tools, and more. Two themes have emerged: identifying the appropriate metrics to quantify anecdotal evidence of safety success, and measuring action taken by the target audience rather than just the initial activities by advocating agencies.

In Firewise, community residents organize around a common risk, and provide sweat equity in advancing local change to achieve annual recognition. New communities join, while others renew year-on-year going back to the program’s national inception in 2002. Some see high levels of participation in events, while others raise awareness at meetings and consist of a dedicated few advocating for future change around them. Communities enter at different levels of wildfire understanding, and move at different rates that reflect their needs and circumstances. Successes occur over time as community members work toward a goal of wildfire safety.

Even failures, or debates in homeowner meetings, can become tools and indicators of future trends if they are affecting the knowledge of those involved. Lack of full compliance is not failure. Often, programs measure the quantity of meetings held or brochures delivered because those figures are immediately available, tied to budgets, and can reflect public interest. To capture the true impact of preparedness, though, the metrics should explore what those activities have accomplished and influenced.

The ultimate goal is a community that believes in the aspiration of the effort and sees itself empowered through such social change. Programs like Firewise can provide that platform for success—but they also need to acknowledge that participants will initially engage at different levels, and they need to identify ways to measure the successes of those participants, no matter what their engagement.

Lucian Deaton manages the Firewise Communities and Fire Adapted Communities Programs in NFPA’s Wildland Fire Operations Division.