Step 1B: Develop a Community Profile

The risk assessment should also include obtaining information on the people who are impacted by, or a part of, the problem. Therefore, it will be necessary to acquire data to develop a community demographic profile. Risk is often influenced by economic and social issues. Therefore, the community risk-reduction process must address socioeconomic issues. The demographic composition of a community typically includes the statistical data of its population. This should include:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Income
  • Race and ethnicity
  • Social and cultural information
  • Education
  • Housing type, age, and density (optional)

Demographic Data Sources

For most communities, this information is readily available from a variety of sources. This is where involving community partners can be of significant value, as they will often have more comprehensive information regarding the local population. In some cases, a community profile may have already been completed by another government agency or organization. Local and regional demographic sources may include:

  • City, state, & county government
  • Chambers of Commerce
  • School districts/boards of education
  • Non-profit organizations
  • Neighborhood associations
  • Public health (state, local, & federal)
  • GIS departments

Figure 3: Screenshot of US Census web site at

A significant source for community profile data can be found on the United States Census Bureau website and the American FactFinder website. It is beyond the scope of this document to provide a complete list of the many data resources that can be found on these websites, but there are many. It is well worth the time to explore these for relevant information.

These websites contain very powerful tools and instruments for obtaining a wealth of information concerning the demographics of your community. Although the process for gathering data from these websites may be intimidating initially, it can be easily mastered with experience. You should consider spending some time exploring each of these sites to determine what is available for your community and how to utilize the various tools.

The Census Bureau website contains a vast quantity of data regarding population, businesses, geography and other information. Much of this is limited to broader areas such as states, counties and, in some cases, cities. Within the Census Bureau’s website are two other valuable sources of data: the American Housing Survey and the American Community Survey.

The American FactFinder website may provide the most detailed demographic information about your community or service area. It provides data on population, age, business and industry, education, housing, income, poverty and much more.

Figure 4: Example of a data table generated through the American Fact Finder web siteFigure 4 is an example of a data table generated through the American FactFinder website. It is based on the employment rate of the City of Vancouver, Washington by age, race and other factors. The site provides substantial versatility when generating data. Tables can be modified, printed and downloaded and, in some cases, maps can be created.

Community Partners

Other state and local agencies and organizations can be quite useful in the development of your community profile. Typically, they will have important information to share and may have a better insight into loss history, high-risk groups, local business issues, and specific demographics throughout the various neighborhoods. It is strongly recommended to have representatives from the community—especially from groups at the highest risk of fires and other injuries—to serve on your team, so their insights are fully integrated into the plan.

Assessing Community Trends

In order to do a thorough assessment, it will be important to not just evaluate your community’s current conditions, but to look at its past and projected future. There are many components to this process, and it can become quite complex. Although a comprehensive analysis to determine future projections may be beyond the capacity of many fire departments, the data may already be available. The U.S. Census Bureau assesses population trends, and local planning departments often have completed projections on community growth and other anticipated trends.

Building the Community Profile

Once you have gathered the necessary data, you can then begin to build and document your community profile and answer specific questions. A bulleted summary table can be an easy way to describe the demographic characteristics of your service area. Appendix A lists the category, description, and various questions to answer about each demographic topic.

Using GIS Technology

Figure 5: Map showing the frequency and locations of fires over a six year period.The use of GIS technology has continued to proliferate throughout the U.S. Fire Service. It has proven to be not only useful in risk assessment, but other types of planning, preparedness, and incident response and recovery activities. Once you have determined and acquired your data sources, you will need to identify available GIS expertise and potential training requirements. This may include a GIS analyst/technician; other fire departments or government agencies using GIS; and training sources. It can also be useful to network with GIS user-groups in your area, as well as collaborate with other local fire departments.

While it would be useful to gain a basic understanding of GIS technology, it is not necessary to become an expert in this field to utilize GIS when conducting a risk assessment. Many city and county governments have GIS experts that are often willing to assist the fire department in building a GIS project. If your jurisdiction has access to GIS services, their potential value in risk assessment cannot be overstated, and you should cultivate positive relationships with the organization and staff.

GIS map projects are composed of layers of data. Each of the layers can be created from various data sources and stored in a standard relational database. In this way, GIS is much more than a map—it is a location-aware information system that allows creating, managing and displaying relevant data. Because information can be organized by a specific geographic location, it enables you to see the relationship between the various data layers.

Figure 5 is an example of a map showing the frequency and locations of fires that occurred during a six-year period. The map clearly illustrates the high-risk areas in a community, which can lead to the development of activities for prevention and mitigation.

Figure 6: Example map showing population by census groups for a location.Using GIS in the Community Profile

GIS technology is widely used by government agencies for a variety of applications. Local government agencies, such as planning or GIS departments, usually have substantial information about their communities. In some cases, they may already have a community profile documented in some form or another. The GIS department may be able to generate maps that can be used later in the CRR process.

The U.S. Census Bureau website also has the ability to generate a variety of demographic maps of your community; which can be printed or copied and used in your analysis. Figure 6 is an example of a map generated by the Census Data Mapper on the Census Bureau website. It shows the percentage of the population 65 years of age and older for a particular county.
Figure 7: Example map showing the percentage of population over 65 in Yakima County as 11.6%Figure 7 is another map generated through the Census Bureau website. It shows the population, by census groups, for a particular city. Maps can be generated by population, race, ethnicity, age, sex, and housing status.

If your department has access to GIS, local census data can be accessed and utilized to generate custom maps. ArcGIS® by Esri® is an application that can incorporate demographic, incident, and other data into useful maps that can provide much greater insight into what risks are occurring, where they are occurring, and within what types of populations.