20 Tough Questions For the Fire Chief: Are You Prepared To Answer Them? Question 5

This question is particularly challenging because of its connotation that a certain response time may be legally defendable. To the best of our knowledge, there is no law that defines or establishes response times for emergency services. Thus, the...


The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards for deployment and response (NFPA 1710 for predominately career fire departments and NFPA 1720 for predominately volunteer departments) establish response-time goals for fire departments. However, it could be contested these numbers have not been validated scientifically.

Setting goals

How should a community develop a response-time goal for emergencies? All stakeholders (elected and appointed officials, first responders, citizens and visitors) are likely to agree that response times to critical emergencies should be quick and efficient. No one wants to call 911 when their house is on fire and wait 30 minutes for the fire department to arrive. In such a scenario, the outcome (a total loss) would be highly predictable.

Combined, we have more than 40 years experience as chief officers. From that we have concluded that many citizens assume their emergency services providers are going to respond quickly when called. We can count on one hand how many times citizens have called, saying they were considering moving into our community and wanted to know what the response time was for the fire department to an emergency. Why do citizens seem so unconcerned about something that’s so important?

We think there are two foundational reasons: indifference and assumptions. Citizens are indifferent because they believe house fires are very rare and such a tragedy will never happen to them. Citizens also assume the fire department (and the town’s elected and appointed officials) are looking out for their best interests by ensuring emergency responses will be quick and efficient.

The response-time goal set for any community should be an informed decision. Those involved in the decision should understand the benefits and consequences of various response times (with acknowledgment there is little science to support an exact number). First responders, while passionate about a quick response, need to understand that every community and the citizens who live there have financial constraints and competing demands for limited budget dollars.

Just one of many

We in public safety are just one among many priorities that elected officials and citizens have. And for so much as we may think we are the most important priority in the lives of our tax payers, we may not have sweeping community backing to support the service level we think our residents deserve. The goal is to work with elected officials and the community to establish the response time goals.

Once the mutually agreed upon standard is set, the next step is to ensure there is a means in place to measure performance. For example, the standard for your community may be to have the first apparatus on scene of a working structure fire in less than six minutes and a full first-alarm assignment (two engines and a ladder truck for the sake of this example) on the scene in less than 12 minutes. Along with this, there may be personnel-response goals, say four persons on the first-arriving apparatus and a total of 15 personnel assembled on the scene in 12 minutes.

How well does the department do at meeting this goal? What should the acceptable “fail” rate be (i.e., how often the goal is not met due to extenuating circumstances such as multiple simultaneous calls or severe weather delays)? While the objective may be 100% compliance to the goal, it is not realistic to expect that can happen. Thus, in addition to setting the response time goal, the stakeholders should also establish the acceptable limits for outliers.

For example, a community may establish a goal to have an engine company on the scene of any reported structure fire, with a crew of four, in six minutes, 90% of the time. Additionally, at no time should the first-arriving engine take longer than 12 minutes. When responses exceed the goal, an evaluation should be conducted to determine how and why it happened and what steps could be taken to reduce the likelihood of a reoccurrence.

If exceptions occur more than 10% of the time (i.e., less than 90% compliance), the shortcoming should be resolved. This may mean retooling the way the department responds to emergencies, allocating additional resources to meet the goal or adjusting the goal to meet the capability of the department within the confines of existing resources. All three options should involve input from elected and appointed officials, department representatives and the community.