20 Tough Questions For the Fire Chief: Are You Prepared To Answer Them? Question 6

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...


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This standard is good in that it avoids a cookie-cutter approach to benchmarking response times. It measures service based on community profile and demographics. You will also notice a recommended compliance rate, illustrated in percentage of responses attained. For example, in a community with a population density of 1,000 residents or greater per mile, the standard recommends a response time of nine minutes for 90% of responses measured. Many departments use the 90th percentile as a measure of success. However, a department may choose to use a higher percentage or lower depending upon community response expectations. So how should you determine your appropriate percentile measurement?

When establishing response-time measures, there is no single guideline that conveniently fits all departments. A systems approach that considers economics, staffing model, risks, political aspirations, topography and community demographics should be evaluated to reach a desirable goal. Response goals should be matched to the individual municipality and identified by the community with the active involvement of elected officials, city management, fire administrators and citizens.

Common measure points to consider include identifying what you are including; e.g., emergency or non-emergency events. Achieving a single standard may be more difficult if you lump and measure all responses together. Since many of us in the fire world believe that a quick response affects the outcome of true emergency events such as structure fires, perhaps the better approach is to measure only emergency events. This not only improves your chances of meeting your response time benchmark, but also gives you an idea on how you are performing for your most critical events.

Many departments further qualify response time and divide the overall response time to emergency events into category of response for specific event types. Examples may be structure fires (divided further into occupancy type) and technical rescue events. Drilling further, time-of-day and day-of-week will also paint a broader picture of your department’s strengths and where you have opportunities to improve your response delivery. Plotting your response time geographically may also help in planning for adequate coverage. Seasonal fluctuation in response times is another consideration, especially in regions where there is heavy tourist populations (congesting traffic) or in regions prone to poor weather (e.g., ice and snow).

A sample standard

Let’s use the fictional town of Jonesville and compare the town’s demographic profile to the NFPA 1720 standard to determine a response standard.

Using NFPA 1720 criteria, Jonesville would be classified as a rural community in terms of fire protection. In this case, the Jonesville Fire Department may establish its response-time goal as follows:

The department shall be capable of placing six firefighters on the scene of an emergency in no greater than 14 minutes, 59 seconds for 80% of the emergency responses.

For discussion, we have taken the liberty of defining when the clock starts (from dispatch) and that we will count only emergency calls. We have also determined that the clock stops when the first suppression apparatus arrives on scene.

The second part of the response time equation tracks the number of personnel arriving on scene to determine whether you meet the minimum staffing requirement of six fire personnel. For simplicity, we feel that recording the number of responders arriving on suppression apparatus to emergency events is easier to track than attempting to track the number of responders to all events. To further quantify your service, you could capture the number of responders on the first three arriving suppression apparatus to gauge the total number responders arriving (hopefully) early enough to improve the outcome.

On average, Jonesville responds to 400 calls for service on an annual basis. If 20% of its annual calls comprise emergency events, then we would be measuring 80 calls. Looking at these 80 calls, the 80th percentile would be 64 calls.

Response issues

Many fire departments continually evaluate their service and place a priority on reducing response times and increasing staffing levels to emergency incidents. Several approaches have been adopted to address these response issues. A partial list may include:

• The closest district fire station geographically located to the incident is alerted to the call and responds to it.

• Multiple-station dispatching is used by many departments to improve both response time and staffing deficiencies.