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The most important firefighting occurs before a spark is struck, according to Spring Lake Park-Blaine-Mounds View Fire Chief Nyle Zikmund.

For the joint fire department, that philosophy appears to be paying off: From 1999 to 2009, while the population of the three Anoka County cities rose by 18 percent, the department saw an 8.7 percent drop in service calls. Meanwhile, from 2003 to 2009, calls were up 17 percent countywide.

When you account for population growth, the three cities' per capita decrease in emergency calls was a whopping 28 percent.

Zikmund credits the department's years of wide-ranging fire prevention work. "Volumes of evidence says [fire] suppression is a failed response," he said. "It's the extreme case that suppression actually makes a difference. You don't abandon suppression, but we recognize if we really want to make a difference, we've got to make an investment ... into prevention."

That investment takes three forms, Zikmund said: public education, code enforcement and fire investigations paired with arson prosecution.

The department's education arm has 19 programs, including free smoke detector checks and school outreach.

The department has completed a couple of thousand household risk assessments over 10 years, and Zikmund sees great potential to make more contact with the 28,000 households in his coverage area, using the Internet, phone surveys, cell phone applications and more.

Zikmund also says a collaborative and educational approach to code enforcement can pay dividends.

"We don't use the heavy hand of rule, do it or we'll shut you down," he said. "That, long term, leads to a greater voluntary compliance."

Two major manufacturing plants, Aveda in Blaine and Colonial Craft in Mounds View, have annual safety and fire prevention days.

And when the department started working with young fire starters 12 years ago, they'd regularly have as many as 150 kids a session. That number has dropped to a dozen or fewer as word spread that the department is serious about intervening with kids who play with fire. "We tell them, if you hate this, tell all your friends," Zikmund said.

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409