How to conduct a Community Risk Assessment

About Community Risk Assessments  

A Community Risk Assessment identifies and prioritizes local risks, followed by the strategic investment of resources to reduce their occurrence and impact. Its primary purpose is to provide data to better inform local decisions on the planning and implementing risk reduction measures. While Community Risk Assessments are not required, State and local jurisdictions conduct them often. For example, the local Fire Department works to understand fire risk and how that might change over time. And conducting a Community Risk Assessment is a key component of the Hazard Mitigation Plan, which is required for States, Tribes, and local jurisdictions to receive critical Federal funding. Typically, community risk assessments have six steps:  

  1. Identify risks 

  2. Describe risks and their impacts 

  3. Identify community assets and capabilities to reduce risk and increase resilience 

  4. Complete a risk analysis 

  5. Summarize and share 

  6. Monitor, evaluate, and revise 

Community Risk Assessments are powerful tools used in many local planning processes. Frontline communities must be actively involved in identifying and analyzing the risks they face and participate directly in planning for, monitoring, and evaluating disasters. 

Step 1: Identify risks  

Each community faces different natural climate or human-induced risks and hazards, varying in scope and frequency. A natural hazard is a natural phenomenon that might harm humans and other animals or the environment. In California, natural hazards typically include earthquakes (and other seismic hazards such as liquefaction), wildfires, landslides or mudslides, floods, drought, windstorms, sea-level rise, and pandemics. Natural hazards may trigger secondary hazards, including power shutoffs, rolling blackouts, infrastructure failure, fires, explosions, and water shutoffs. Climate change, of course, makes all these hazards more extreme and variable.  

There are a variety of data sources that are helpful for understanding potential hazards in California:  

Use local knowledge, too, since community members have an in-depth understanding of the risks and hazards they face. 

Step 2: Describe risks and their impacts 

After identifying potential hazards, describe them in detail to better understand what to expect during a disaster. List out the community impacts based on the information gathered. Here are suggested topics to cover for hazards and impacts in your community: 

Category Hazard description Impacts
Location The geographic areas that the hazard will impact. Maps are helpful. For example, showing what part of your community is closest to a fault line.  The assets or infrastructure that will be impacted by risk. For example, flooding impacts housing units. 
Extent of risk Strength or magnitude of the hazard. What is the latest science saying? What will this feel like to community members?  How will the level of risk impact the community? For example, our community was constructed before the current code, and many homes cannot withstand extreme earthquakes. 
Legacy occurrence When has this happened before? This helps estimate the likelihood that a hazard is repeated and can help estimate or picture the potential impacts.  How does legacy show up in placing my community at risk? For example, my community has experienced redlining, which has created underinvestment in my community, and now we are at greater risk. 
Probability of future events Use past occurrences and the latest predictions. Several factors, including climate change, contribute to the unpredictability of future events.  How will the future inform my risk? For example, future events can place housing and assets at greater risk to climate change.  

Step 3: Identify community assets and capabilities to reduce risk and increase resilience 

In this step, describe what makes the community important to the people that live there. This section offers a great opportunity to describe how frontline communities view themselves and their assets. Typical risk assessments, including those conducted by the government, often assess risk according to financial or economic impacts rather than human impacts. As a result of years of disinvestment, frontline communities tend to have fewer assets, and the incredible assets they do have tend to be valued less.  

This dynamic creates further inequality. The government at every level is more likely to invest in hazard mitigation measures that benefit the more asset-rich areas, even if fewer people are protected. Having a record of assets in frontline communities can help push the narrative away from being purely financially based. It can also pressure decision-makers to consider other metrics for determining the value of community assets. 

Here are examples of community assets: 

Asset Description
People People are the most important community asset. Talk about the people who live there, their contributions, and the history they hold. 
Natural environment Environmental assets and natural resources are important to the quality of life, the economy and provide protective functions that reduce hazard impacts and increase resiliency.  
Built environment Historical sites, key critical facilities like hospitals, community institutions, and cultural resources. 
Economy Economic resiliency drives community recovery after a disaster. Each community has specific economic drivers that are important to understand when planning to reduce the impacts of hazards. Identify major employers, primary economic sectors including non-profit, and commercial sectors.  
Culture Describe how place matters to residents. Talk about music, art, culture, food, history, and why preserving it matters. 

Step 4: Complete a risk analysis 

It's easier to understand what's at risk with a clear list of potential hazards and community assets. There are few common methods of analyzing risk:  

  • Exposure analysis: Identify existing and future assets located in hazard areas, typically using maps. When conducting this analysis, look at how risks might differ depending on the size and scale of the event. While there are many sophisticated programs for mapping, it’s always fine to use drawings.  

    • For example, have a map of flood zones and place all the community assets on the map. How many assets are there? What would happen if there were three feet of water? Six feet? 

  • Historical analysis: Use information on impacts and losses from previous hazard events to predict potential impacts and losses during a similar event in the future. This is especially useful for weather-related hazards.  

  • Scenario analysis: Predict the impacts of a particular event (posing a “what if” question). This method is beneficial for hazards that are low in frequency and high in consequence, for which there is limited historical information available.  

  • A combination of these methods 

While these are common methods of understanding risk, frontline communities may have their own understanding of what might happen based on their lived experience. For example, Native Americans understand wildfire as a positive and not necessarily “risky.” Include diverse points of view in the community risk assessment and other sources of information from frontline communities. 

Step 5: Summarize and Share  

Finally, summarize the information gathered in the previous steps so that everyone can understand the full picture. A few best practices: 

  • Try to be concise, include visuals, and make it so that everyone can read and understand everything. A ninth-grade reading level is a good benchmark.  

  • Have it translated into the native languages of community members.  

Share it with community members and leaders, policymakers, and other stakeholders when the document is ready.  

Step 6: Monitor, evaluate, and revise 

Community Risk Assessments should be living documents. Create a plan that describes how it will be evaluated, monitored, and revised. Be sure to include diverse voices in the monitoring and evaluation process. 

Actions to take  

For individuals 

  • Start a campaign for a Community Risk Assessment and participate in the process! 

For community-based organizations and affordable housing providers 

  • Partner with researchers, experts, and local government to learn about different hazards and their potential impacts.  

  • Create your own localized Community Risk Assessment and share it with your local Office of Emergency Services. Offer it to add to the local hazard mitigation planning process every five years, which includes a community risk assessment for the whole locality. 

  • Use your assessment to make strategic decisions about building upgrades, business operations, or disaster preparedness training for community members. 

  • Share out the assessment widely via social media, media, and other platforms. Consider holding a public town hall with your community members.  

For local and State government 

  • Share hazard information in clear, concise ways for community-based organizations to access and understand risks. This will make it easier for them to do their own analysis and draw their own conclusions. 

  • Incorporate findings from community risk assessments produced by frontline communities into plans and projects.  

  • Offer funding for community-based organizations to work on their risk assessments. This work will aid your efforts to reduce disaster impacts on frontline communities.  

For philanthropy 

  • Completing a risk assessment takes time and energy that organizations serving frontline communities might not have right now. Create a fund to support community-based organizations that want to do this work.