Modelling fire risk behaviours and attitudes to improve the identification of areas at risk of fire in the community

Published:  20 October, 2014

Groundbreaking research from the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University will enable firefighters to examine community fire risk behaviour with a pioneering computational simulation programme.

This project is the first of its kind in this area of application and aims to improve the prevention of fire and emergencies. If successful the simulation programme could be rolled out to Fire Services across the country. The simulation will improve the identification of areas at risk and vulnerable communities, including the prediction of outcomes of interventions. This decision-support tool will aid in the optimisation of resource allocation planning of operations, and with community prevention work, by considering patterns of variations of risk behaviours (eg time in the day, day in the month, and months in the year) across the city and the South Yorkshire region.

The project brings together a wide range of expertise in a variety of areas including risk analysis of behaviours, co-evolutionary approaches in the study of social processes and front-line knowledge from members of the South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service (SYFR). The funding has been awarded by the South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue Authority (SYFRA) to examine community fire risk behaviours in the South Yorkshire region. Supported by the Stronger Safer Communities Reserve, the project will simulate domestic fire risk behaviours using agent based modelling. This revolutionary project further strengthens the growing reputation of the Sheffield-based group of academics using agent-based computational tools to simulate changing social processes in organisations and communities.

Background

An important part of the SYFR Integrated Risk Management Plan (IRMP) 2013-17 has involved the creation of a community risk model.  Through the geo-demographic mapping of Mosaic lifestyle profile data the model is expected to inform prevention work, and help identify the people in those communities who are most at risk from fire. This targeted approach is expected to focus community fire safety activity where it will have the most impact and therefore help ensure an effective service.  This has been an important phase of work in modelling the potential likelihood of fire and also its impact, especially considering the vulnerable. National research has already informed this work, a brief summary of which is outlined in the SYFR ‘Community Fire Risk Model’ document (July 2013).  In 2008 for example, CLG conducted work on identifying key indicators of fire risk.  And in March 2013 the London Fire Brigade reported on its work around targeting the most at risk from fire through demographic analysis.  In 2013 the Fire Safety Journal has published recent research into the use of the vulnerable localities index to help prioritise attention.

However, some limitations do remain.  All of these approaches have a tendency to be static.  These are fixed maps that lack the dynamics time. We aim to extend the existing work of SYFR to help build temporality and a systems dynamic through an Agent Based Modelling approach.

This project will allow SYFR to explore and better understand key behavioural, social and cultural factors underpinning changing fire risk behaviours over time. In so doing resources can be better targeted to prevent these practices emerging in the first instance, thereby protecting the most vulnerable members of the community. The community in turn will be reassured by improved and effective SYFR presence, interventions and governance. Effective practices can be extended to other communities, cities and regions. This project will provide the opportunity to apply some of the research acquired knowledge and skills to resolve a real world problem that will support SYFR to improve services and effectiveness, and as a result benefit the wider community.

Risks of domestic fires

A number of previous studies have linked socio-economic and demographic groupings of household residents with the risks of domestic fires, clearly showing the threat for the most vulnerable in our communities. Key groups have been identified as being at higher risk of household fire incidents, including households with single parents and children, households in financial difficulty, rented properties, and households with a disabled occupant. A difficulty however with these studies is that the focus of attention centres on the socio-economic classification of the individual, and not the behaviours and attitudes towards risk that led to fire incidents in the first place. We argue that the focus of attention should shift towards the management of these behaviours and attitudes over time, and therefore research should explore the change of such behaviours. Previous studies have identified certain behaviours, which are linked to incidents of household fires, including smoking, drinking of alcohol, and cooking practices. Behaviours on their own do not necessarily result in domestic fire incidents. Significantly, the assessment and perception of the risks associated with these behaviours is equally important. For example, in a study carried out by SYFR it was seen that disabled people tend to have many other concerns and challenges in their daily life, and that fire safety is sometimes not their top priority. Therefore, the risk of fire comes lower down in their priorities, compared with other issues in life. In the same study it was also found that there are many factors that influence young peoples’ attitudes to fire safety, including their peers, together with their social background and up-bringing. So the key to understanding changing fire risk behaviours and attitudes rests on our understanding the process through which these behaviours and attitudes are learned and persist, and how this learning process might be influenced by others. Furthermore, to understand the socio-behavioural dynamics underpinning the occurrence and persistence of such behaviours and attitudes over time, involves studying how individuals and groups communicate and interact with one another within our communities.

Modelling household behaviours and attitudes

To address these issues in this project, emerging and changing social processes are viewed as a complex adaptive system in which household fire risk behaviours, and attitudes towards risks (as represented by heuristics), co-evolve within and between groups and individuals. We can examine this process first at the level of the individual household as shown in figure 1. The individual is first defined by their demographic and socio-economic grouping. As noted above, these generalised groupings are associated with certain types of behaviours and attitudes towards risk. Over time the individual learns certain behaviours, and develops certain heuristics, and this process of learning can result in changing behaviours.

Figure 1 Fires risk behaviours and the assessment of risk in the home

This process of learning and change is influenced by others, as behaviours and attitudes are continually influenced by the diversity of individuals and groups that individuals interact with each day. As one individual changes their behaviours and attitudes, they in turn influence those of others. In this way fire risk behaviours and attitudes co-evolve within the local and wider the community. To capture this interaction, in this project a computational model of changing behaviours and heuristics will be constructed, which will simulate household behaviours within a selected high-risk region of Sheffield.

Key benefits

Once realised the project seeks to deliver a number of benefits to the local community. First it will lead to improved understanding of research on fire risk behaviours nationally, and use of historical data relating to changing community behaviours locally. Second by predicting changing patterns of high-risk behaviours in the Sheffield region, it can be used by SYFR as a key tool in strategic and operational planning activities, such as scenario planning, the exploration of different preventative intervention strategies, and the optimisation of resource allocation. It is hoped that the project will ultimately lead to improved protection of vulnerable communities by better identification of effective interventions in areas at high risk. While the initiative will be initially implemented within South Yorkshire, it has the potential to be extended to regional and national levels.

  • Operation Florian

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