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Response time and available staffing are the two most important factors that influence fire department success at emergency scenes.
There has been much debate in the fire service literature and among fire service managers and city administrators about the relative effectiveness of fire companies (i.e., a functional working unit of a fire department, usually consisting of a given number of personnel assigned to a single piece of apparatus) at various staffing levels.
The main issue is what minimum company size is needed to be able to provide basic fire suppression capabilities, combined with a timely response to ensure the highest potential to impact fire control, firefighter safety and civilian survivability. Let’s evaluate the use of response time as a service benchmark, a longheld indicator of performance.
Before we get into benchmarking your response time performance, we should start with developing a working definition of a response time. The definition of response time often depends on perspective – that of the customer and the fire department. From our customer’s viewpoint, response time begins from the time they notice or become aware of a problem. On the other hand, the response-time clock for the fire department starts when the call for help is received from our customer. In either case, the response-time clock stops when the fire department arrives at the emergency scene. In both cases, the quickest response is deemed to be the most effective (assuming you are adequately staffed) in terms of fire control and victim rescue.
Subject to interpretation
There are several limitations with respect to response times, not the least being they are highly subject to interpretation. In other words, the measurement of response time frequently varies from one department to the next and measurement methods render comparisons inaccurate. Some jurisdictions measure response time from when the fire department is dispatched until the arrival of the first suppression apparatus. Others may begin the count when the call is received at the 911 center and stop the clock when the first emergency unit arrives on scene, regardless of whether it has the ability to suppress the fire or rescue victims.
Some departments measure response time for all events, emergency and routine (i.e., no lights/siren), while some track only response times to emergency events where apparatus respond with lights and sirens activated. Another consideration is reporting “on-scene” prematurely or forgetting to communicate the arrival. For our discussion in this article, we will consider the response-time clock stopping when the first suppression apparatus arrives on scene. In addition, we will measure response time for emergency events only. As we have stated, there is no national standard on how to measure response time. While the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1710, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments, and 1720, Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations and Special Operations to the Public by Volunteer Fire Departments, offer guidance, those standards are not laws. Thus, compliance is voluntary.
Since staffing studies and fire growth models support the benchmarks established in NFPA 1710 and 1720 response standards, let’s use NFPA 1720 as a template for establishing your response time benchmark. The chart above indicates recommended standards of response set by the NFPA for predominately volunteer fire departments (minimum staffing and response times for special risks are determined by the Authority Having Jurisdiction).