Safety & Survival: Fireground Setup Time, Measured Scientifically

In 2005, an international risk-management consulting firm contacted me to ask for research about tactics performed by firefighters after they arrive at a structure fire. In particular, they were looking for the time it takes to perform each firefighting task.

The consultants wanted to calculate how long it takes firefighters to complete “setup time”; i.e., how long it takes to put water on a fire after arrival. They already knew U.S. fire service and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standard times for alarm transmission, turnout and travel, but not for the many firefighting tasks that must be performed after arrival to discharge water on the fire and how long it took firefighters to accomplish all the necessary tasks.

After several weeks of research, I submitted my findings. Then came telephone calls from engineers and risk managers from other countries asking about the information in my reports. The questioners were intense and persistent. They wanted to know how I determined my estimates of how long it takes to do a size-up, hook up to a hydrant, force a door, stretch a hoseline up a floor level, raise a portable ladder and vent a window. I told them that most of the times I recorded are based on my experience and researching fire department reports, standards and studies.

Compiling statistics

My research was not scientific. I acted out some tasks by walking around my house to determine a size-up time; for others, I simulated 21 revolutions with a wrench to fully open a hydrant or by going over fire apparatus hookup procedures. Most importantly, I asked firefighters about different types of hose stretches and their time estimates. The firefighters were particularly interested in learning which tasks could be accomplished in sequence, one step at a time, and which could be done simultaneously. I told them it depends on crew size for each apparatus and how many apparatus are sent on the full assignment; the greater the crew size, the more tasks can be completed simultaneously with other tasks. My estimates were based on FDNY crews of five firefighters, which underestimated task-completion times.

I now realize that the engineers and risk managers who called me about my findings probably were from China and the Middle East and planning fire protection for massive cities being built to house millions of people arriving from the countryside for manufacturing jobs. (China alone builds 30 new cities each year.)

As did the original consultants, the callers knew the U.S. standard of fire response, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1710, Standard for Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments. They understood the concept of firefighting response. They knew about the time it should take for an alarm to be transmitted and then processed by a dispatcher. They knew about firefighter turnout time (the time needed to don protective equipment) and they knew about our standard of a four-minute response time – the time from the receipt of an alarm to arrival at the scene.

They also knew the NFPA recommendation of a full-assembly arrival of three engines and one ladder truck, with 16 firefighters, arriving on the scene within eight minutes at least 90% of the time. They also knew there must be an incident commander and an aide included in the full-assembly time standard. However, setup time was a mystery to them. What they wanted to know in this study was what tasks had to be completed after arrival and in what sequence.

Still a mystery

After this assignment, I realized I did not know how to exactly measure these tasks. Firefighter setup time was a mystery to me too. We had measurable standards for response time, alarm receipt, alarm processing at dispatch, protective gear turnout time and travel time getting to the scene, but not setup time:

Call process 60 seconds

Dispatch to units 60 seconds

Protective gear 60 seconds

Travel 180 seconds

Setup time UNKNOWN

Documenting tasks

Several years after my international consulting experience, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) received a grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce to define and document all firefighting tasks performed at a fire in a typical one- or two-story residence building, and this included setup time. At the beginning of the study, NIST engineers consulted with more than 300 fire departments nationwide to identify all the firefighting tactics firefighters performed at residence fires and they identified the most common hose-stretching technique used by most fire departments at a fire in a typical one- or two-story residence building.

From this research, NIST identified 22 critical tactics of firefighting and identified the forward lay as the most common hose stretch (this is where a fire company wraps a supply hose around a hydrant, then the pumper moves to the front of the burning building laying out a 4½-inch supply hose and then 100 feet of 1¾-inch attack hose line is stretched from the pumper to the fire). With this information, NIST and the IAFF set out to scientifically measure firefighting for the first time. The start and finish of each firefighting task was defined and, timed with a stopwatch, carried out three or more times and averaged out. Each firefighting task was documented in writing and recorded on video.

The purpose of this scientific rigor and documentation was so these firefighting tasks could be reproduced for verification. For the first time, standard firefighting tactics have been identified and scientifically measured. In 2010, NIST published a study titled, “Report on Residential Fireground Field Experiments.” According to NIST and the fire departments involved, the following 22 critical firefighting tasks must be accomplished to safely and effectively extinguish a fire in a one- or two-story residence building.

1. Stop at a hydrant, test it and wrap a supply hose around it.

2. Position the engine apparatus and supply line from the hydrant to the front of the building.

3. Conduct a 360-degree size-up, transmit a size-up report and establish command.

4. Engage the centrifugal pump.

5. Position (stretch) an attack hoseline from the pumper to the fire building.

6. Establish the “two-in/two-out” rule by announcement.

7. Supply the attack engine and discharge water on the fire.

8. Establish a rapid intervention team.

9. Gain/force entry.

10. Advance the attack hoseline.

11. Advance the backup line and “stand fast” at the front door.

12. Advance the backup line to protect stairs.

13. Conduct a primary search by the engine company.

14. Place ground ladders.

15. Horizontal venting of the first-floor windows.

16. Horizontal venting of second-floor windows.

17. Control utilities on the interior.

18. Control utilities on the exterior.

19. Conduct a secondary search.

20. Check for fire extension in walls.

21. Check for fire extension in ceilings.

22. Mechanical ventilation to remove residual smoke and gases during salvage and overhaul.

Tasks 1 to 7 and task 9 make up what is known as setup time. This new information about setup time, in my opinion, is the most important finding in the study.

In the 1970s, a presidential report by the National Commission of Fire Prevention and Control titled America Burning used the term “reflex time,” which was defined as the time it takes from the transmission of an alarm until firefighters apply water to a fire. This is more than response time. Reflex time includes: receipt of an alarm of fire; processing and transmitting the alarm at a dispatch office to a fire company; time for firefighters in the station to don protective equipment and get to the fire apparatus; travel time from the firehouse to scene of fire; and most importantly, setup time.

At the time of the report, no one knew how long it took firefighters to complete setup. Studies revealed times for response without including setup time. But reflex time is more important than response time because it includes setup time.

Four decades later, we finally have the missing link – setup time. Today, an incident commander and a fire consultant now have a scientific basis, or benchmark, for measuring the entire fire response (reflex time), not only pieces of the response. For the first time, the total response (reflex time) can finally be measured and evaluated, thanks to the Commerce Department, NIST and the IAFF.

Today, if I received the assignment from engineers and risk managers I got in 2005, I would refer them to the study by NIST. I would tell them in America most fires occur in one- and two-family residence buildings. Firefighters responding to a fire will most likely use a forward-lay stretch on arrival and that includes wrapping supply hose around a hydrant and telling the driver to take off; the pumper driven from the hydrant to the fire building would lay out 300 feet of 4½-inch supply line as it proceeds to the fire building; and when in front of the building other firefighters would stretch 100 feet of 1¾-inch attack hoseline to the front door of the burning building, remove kinks in the hose and flake it out for quick advance into the fire. At the same time as the hose stretch of the first attack hoseline was taking place, the incident commander is conducting a size-up; and the one arriving ladder company is forcing entry.

These are the critical firefighting tasks that comprise setup time:

1. Stopping at hydrant, wrapping a four-inch supply hose around it and connecting to it.

2. Positioning (moving) the engine apparatus from the hydrant to the building front, laying 300 feet of supply hose to the fire.

3. Conducting a size-up, 360 degrees (when the area is open), transmit size-up report and establish command.

4. Engaging the centrifugal pump.

5. Positioning (stretch) 100 feet of 1¾-inch attack hoseline from the pumper to the fire building.

6. Establishing the “two-in/two-out” rule by announcement.

7. Supplying the attack hoseline nozzle with water volume and pressure from the pumper and discharging water on the fire. (Step 9 forcing entry through locked doors if necessary would have been accomplished as the hose was stretched.)

Based on the NIST study, the fire service can now say, for example, with a crew of four firefighters on an apparatus and an alarm assignment of three engines, one ladder and a chief and aide responding to a fire, setup time (the seven tasks of “setup” time) can on average be completed within three minutes and two seconds.” Forcible entry, if required, and the size-up will be carried out simultaneously:

Call process 60 seconds

Dispatch to units 60 seconds

Protective gear 60 seconds

Travel 180 seconds

Setup time 182 seconds

Reflex time 542 seconds

According to the above, donning protective equipment and travel time would be four minutes and setup time another 3.2 minutes. Total “reflex time,” including call process, dispatch time, turnout time, travel time and setup time, with a 1710 standard full-assembly response would be nine minutes and two seconds.


So what does all this mean? It means the fire service finally has a benchmark for the total picture of firefighting. We now know how long it should take to get water on a fire, not just get to the scene. For years, the fire service used a standard of response time that was incomplete and did not show the entire response phase of firefighting. It excluded setup time.

Today, we now have the entire sequence of response, and it is one that includes setup time. This is a target to aim for. It serves as a point of reference for evaluating firefighting tactics when a crew of four firefighters is responding with a full assignment of three engines, one ladder company and an incident commander:

Call process 1 minute

Dispatch time 1 minute

Protective gear 1 minute

Travel time 3 minutes

Setup time 3 min., 2 sec.

Reflex time 9 min., 2 sec. n