Response Times: Are They Real?


Response times are important to emergency service organizations. How long it takes for first responders to get to the scene of an emergency can have a dramatic effect on the outcome of the situation.

Take a look at any emergency vehicles, whether they are ambulances, police cars or fire apparatus. They are all equipped with emergency lights and sirens to assist them in getting to the scene of the emergency faster. We even let emergency vehicles disregard some of our vehicle and traffic laws so they can get where they are going sooner.

All of this makes sense to me, but I have one simple question: What is the response time? When does it start and when does it end? Are we all using the same definition of "response time"? Let's look at some of the interesting response-time issues.

A family wakes up in their house and they see and smell smoke. They run outside and while doing so, one member of the family grabs a cell phone and calls 911. The dispatcher answers the call and begins collecting the information needed to get help to the scene. Is this the moment the response time begins? I don't know either, so let's get back to the story.

After a minute or so, the dispatcher alerts the fire company and the emergency response has begun. The firefighters assemble in the firehouse, don their gear, open the doors, start the rig and climb on board. A few more minutes have now passed. Does the response time start now? I don't know either.

The apparatus pulls out of quarters and heads toward the alarm address. It takes the rig four minutes from the time it rolled out of quarters to arrive at the address. I'm not sure when the response time started, but is it now, when the first fire department rig arrives on scene, that the response time ends? I do know this, but I will explain later.

I don't know when response time starts, for several reasons. The first is, what are you measuring and why? Do you want to know how well the entire fire response system is working or do you just want to know how quickly a fire apparatus can get to the scene of a fire or emergency? If your dispatchers are not real sharp, or if they are overworked or understaffed, could an alarm stall or slow down before the fire company is even notified? You bet it can! Can a really rapid dispatch operation get an alarm to a fire company in under a minute only to have the company take three minutes to get out of the firehouse and on its way to the emergency? Oh yes!

Let's talk a little about when the response time ends. This is the big question because inquiring minds want to know just how long it takes a fire truck to get to their house if it's on fire. This answer is easier; I don't know! I'm afraid we have to look at what a response time is before we can figure out how long it takes.

If your definition of response time is something like, "The time it takes for the first-to-arrive fire department unit to travel from the fire station to the address of the alarm," that sounds great, but it is incomplete. What if the first-to-arrive fire department unit is a battalion chief in a white shirt, by himself, in a nice new fire department SUV? Does the response time end when he arrives? It shouldn't. Oh, the chief is going to start talking on his radio and issuing orders and maybe even calling for more help, but he can't really do anything, can he? What if the first-to-arrive fire department unit is an engine with one or two firefighters on board? Can they begin interior structural firefighting? No! With no reports of missing or trapped people, can they enter and begin a search for fire or victims? No! So why should the response time stop when they arrive? It shouldn't.

The fallacy of modern fire service response times is that they make the mayor and the county board of commissioners and the citizens think that if their fire departments response times are reasonable, let's say four to five minutes, that the fire department will be at work extinguishing the fire right when they get there, in just four to five minutes. Sorry, Mrs. Smith, it's not going to happen.

A real response-time definition should look something like this: "The time it takes for the fire department to assemble a team of firefighters and equipment sufficient to begin interior firefighting operations." Now, this is not a perfect definition and I'm sure some firehouse lawyer can shoot holes in this, but the intent is the important element here. Having just any old red car or truck that belongs to the fire department arrive at the scene of an emergency with maybe only one or two people inside does not qualify as any type of threat to the fire. The fire will intensify, while our first-arriving fire person is establishing command and stopping the critical response-time clock. Nonsense!

JOHN J. SALKA Jr., a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 28-year veteran battalion chief with FDNY, the commander of the 18th battalion in the Bronx. Salka has instructed at several FDNY training programs, including the department's Probationary Firefighters School, Captains Management Program and Battalion Chiefs Command Course. He conducts training programs at national and local conferences and has been recognized for his firefighter survival course "Get Out Alive." Salka co-authored the FDNY Engine Company Operations manual and wrote the book First In, Last Out — Leadership Lessons From the New York Fire Department. He also operates Fire Command Training (, a New York-based fire service training and consulting firm.