In a fire, time is crucial
Utah departments working hard to respond quickly
By Jennifer Dobner
Deseret Morning News
When the emergency is personal, seconds tick by like minutes; minutes like hours.
A firefighter removes a bicycle on May 17 at the scene of a home fire in Sandy. An investigative report into the blaze will be issued Monday.
Chris Bergin, Deseret Morning News
"If you're the one waiting, it's a long time," said Don Chase, chief of the Sandy Fire Department. "Five minutes seems like five hours."
Chase speaks from experience — some of it quite recent.
On May 17, a Sandy fire company found itself unable to rescue Dr. Herbert Ungricht when he was trapped inside the burning garage of his home near 8400 South and 1900 East. The department has been criticized for its response time of six minutes. Others said they dialed 911 only to get a busy signal.
The findings of an investigation of the incident, including an official cause of the fire, is expected be released Monday, Chase said. And although Chase admits he would have liked to have arrived at the Ungricht home sooner, after listening to dispatch tapes and assessing the steps taken by his crews, he said he believes very little could have changed the department's response.
So how long is too long when racing to put out a fire?
Standards established by the National Fire Protection Association, state that a fire department should meet the following time objectives for responding to a fire or emergency medical service call: one minute for turnout (the time from when an alarm sounds and the fire truck departs the station); four minutes or less for arrival of the unit and/or eight minutes or less for the arrival of additional units. Similar objectives are set for emergency medical services.
Most fire departments in Utah and across the country either formally adopt the standards or use them as a guidelines for setting their individual department standards. Most also meet that standard. Of the 22 department that responded to a request from the Deseret Morning News for information about average response times, all but four had times within one minute plus or minus of the standard.
Hitting the mark
Hitting that four-minute mark of first arrival is an effort fraught with variables.
Station locations and call destinations are a factor. So is the time of day and the route that must be traveled. Weather can play a role as can the need for a piece of specialized equipment. The type of call has an impact, too. Medical calls are generally simpler in turnout time, so response times are typically less than those for fires.
Even a city budget can affect response, Clearfield Fire Marshal Craig Whitesides said. City governments that place a priority on fire and emergency medical services generally fund the service to provide adequate staffing and multiple station locations.
"If they don't want to go out on a limb like that, then we have to realize that there may be portions of the city that can be 12 or 13 minutes out," said Whitesides, noting that including fire service in the growth planning of a community can hit a city hard.
"(City leaders) weren't prepared for the growth out here. They didn't look 10, 15 years down the road." he said. "Our east/west corridors are really packed, and you're at the mercy of the traffic on a two-lane road that is really a cow path that was paved."
West Jordan's city leaders have managed growth a little better, assistant fire chief Brad Wardle said. The city closed two east-side stations and built new ones on the west side to keep pace with the way the community had sprouted.
The new buildings also have design features that enhance the quick turnout effort, he said. The landscaping, for example, is a low-maintenance xeriscape, which cuts out the lawn-mowing duty and keeps firefighters in close proximity to the firehouse.
"If they are too far away, they can't get back in time to make the turnout," Wardle said.
Right and fast
Departments say they train to keep the steps between an alarm sounding and an engine departure smooth and swift. They use a combination of means to streamline response from rote repetition of taking on and off their gear to scientific mapping of the community.
Salt Lake County runs its new recruits through timed drills, that sometimes are like pop quizzes, to get firefighters used to jumping into turnout gear with lightning speed, Capt. Marlon Jones said. A department battalion chief also is studying different techniques to cut turnout time.
West Jordan's fire department evaluates its response times weekly and has used a global positioning system device to chart the city into quadrants and plot the swiftest routes to various points, Wardle said. Orem's fire department is in the midst of a response time and travel route study.
"We train continually, and we take our training very seriously because we take the safety of our personnel and our citizens very seriously," Orem Fire Marshal Scott Gurney said. "We can't afford to have mistakes made. Seconds can be the means between success and disaster."
Another critical element of response is getting the right information from dispatchers and getting it quickly, Wardle said.
"The sooner we get the right information, the better off we are," he said. "We have to make literally split-second decisions on these calls. You could easily get a call like Don Chase did where you get a call that changes."
Sandy's review of dispatch tapes shows that the information about the May 17 call changed three times within a matter of seconds, Chase said.
First, the call was dispatched as a medical call, with the patient identified as man who has suffered burns. So the crew left the station preparing for a medical response. Updated information a few seconds later, however, changed the call to a car fire with a person trapped; and then, finally, a second update with the information that the call was in fact a garage fire.
With new information, the captain stopped the fire engine in the street, and the crew suited up in the baggy, yellow-gray, protective gear known as "turnout gear," required for fighting fires. The switch delayed the city's response by a minute or two, the chief said.
"You have to remember that a fire is a dynamic situation," said Chase. "It's not a static situation where you can go A connects to B and B connects to C. You have to be able to adapt."
The 38 calls on the Ungricht fire jammed the 911 line in part because only three phones lines are dedicated for calls from Sandy, Chase said.
Dispatchers at the Valley Emergency Communications Center (VECC) cull the most accurate information from a 911 caller as quickly as possible, VECC executive director Terry Ingram said. The service, which dispatches for every fire department in the Salt Lake Valley with the exception of Salt Lake City, processes more than 50,000 calls annually.
"Our goal is 60 seconds, and obviously if things go smoothly it will go quicker than that," said Ingram. "The national standard is 60 seconds. We average 58."
Getting the right information, especially about call locations, can sometimes be tough. Often 911 callers are agitated or excited, making it hard to get the right details. Hard-wired phone lines that can be tracked by computer software, help locate some addresses, but more and more 911 calls come from cell phones, making location hard to determine. A new law passed by the Utah Legislature will increase phone taxes so that Utah can build an enhanced 911 system that relies on GPS to better track calls from cell phones, Ingram notes.
"Communication being what it is, in an emergency not everybody is able to express themselves," Ingram said. "The other problem is that in high stress people judge the time differently. They think that they have been waiting longer than they actually did."
Overall there appears to be few problems and only a handful of times each year when fire in homes or businesses are not knocked down within a short time of being reported. But mistakes can and do happen.
In August 2003, a South Jordan family waited 11 minutes for a firetruck after calling 911 because of conflicting information received at the time of the initial 911 calls. Dispatchers initially received two "hang up" calls in which the line disconnected before any information was exchanged. Either through a computer or human error, fire companies were sent to an address near 9900 S. Wasatch Blvd. (3680 East), not near 9900 South and 1300 West, where the fire actually was burning. Damages at the time were estimated at more than $450,000.
Chase believes that fire service in the Salt Lake Valley is better than ever before because firefighters are well-trained, they have better equipment and valley departments work more closely together to protect residents, he said.
That hasn't always been true. Just five years ago, departments around the valley were engaged in bitter feuds over territorial boundaries. Feeling threatened by the larger Salt Lake County Fire Department, its resources and higher pay, many small departments formed tight-knit interlocal agreements in order to avoid seeking help from the county.
That practice unraveled in February 2000, when the Salt Lake Council of Governments directed valley chiefs to put aside their differences to ensure the best fire and emergency medical services possible for taxpayers. The move was triggered by a late-night fire at a West Valley City restaurant. West Valley's relationship with the county was so strained that a county fire company sat on its hands just blocks from the blaze while Salt Lake City's fire department was called in to assist.
Now working together as the Salt Lake Valley Fire Alliance, department chiefs meet monthly to talk about issues of fire operations or politics to resolve any issues that might get in the way of providing good service, Wardle said.
"In the end, the infighting was protectionism, and it really wasn't serving our profession, which we take great pride in, nor in the public's best interest," Wardle said. "It's been kind of rewarding. We still have our own individual issues and nuances in each department, but, collectively, all the agencies in the valley are covering each other's backs now."
The valley will take another step toward more consolidated fire service on July 1 when county fire becomes the Uniform Fire Service (UFA). UFA will combine all of Salt Lake County's contract cities — Draper, Herriman, Holladay, Riverton and Taylorsville — into one fire district with the rest of the unincorporated county.
That's likely the direction Davis County is headed, although it may take several years, Whitesides said. Clearfield and West Point are on the cusp of a consolidation agreement that will bring a new fire station to the far western reaches, where currently the fire and emergency medical response can be 12 minutes or more, he said.
Off and on over the years, Davis County officials have batted around the idea of consolidation but have opted to maintain the status quo with three different dispatching centers and mutual aid agreements between cities. Whitesides believes most departments agree that in principle consolidation is a good idea that is good for the customer.
"We treat (the public) as a customer," he said. "We'll do whatever it takes to get to the customer. Most people don't care what color the truck is or whose name is on it."
Chase agrees and says he believes most in the community understand the challenges fire departments have in getting to calls. He also said he welcomes the criticism and questioning that comes with the job.
"It's not hard to take. If I were the one standing there, I'd be asking too," he said. "One of these days it will be like "Star Trek" and we'll just beam (firefighters) on over there, but we haven't figured that out yet."
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06-13-2004, 01:53 PM #1
Utah-FD's worken hard to respond QuicklyFront line since 1983 and still going strong
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