"Time To Respond" - Philly area paper comments on Response Times of Volunteers
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Time to respond
By: JACOB FENTON (Sat, Oct/20/2007)
The time it takes the area’s volunteer fire departments to get to a blaze varies from an average of five minutes in densely populated boroughs to more than nine in sprawling townships, an Intelligencer analysis of more than 3,000 fires in Bucks and Montgomery counties has found.
Using a federal database of information gathered by the Department of Homeland Security, the analysis gives a first-ever look at the response efficiencies of 40 fire departments in Bucks and Montgomery counties.
Because there is no state law to require public disclosure of volunteer firefighters’ performance, the public and even other emergency responders have little information with which to judge the performance of area fire companies. Emergency service representatives from both counties refused to provide data entered into their computer-aided dispatch systems for the reporting of this story.
There are gaps in the data used for this analysis. Only departments that received federal homeland security grants are required to file monthly reports with the federal government, and even among those, there are missing pieces of information.
But the records analyzed do account for 6,271 total responses by the 40 companies in 2004 and 2005.
A review of those records shows, among other things:
n Firefighters arrive on the scene of more than half of all fires in Bucks and Montgomery counties within three to six minutes — well within national standards for volunteer fire companies. In more than 70 percent of those fires, volunteers were on scene in less than six minutes. In 2005, the national average was 5.8 minutes, though that includes volunteer and career firefighters.
n Several fire companies reported that it takes volunteers nine minutes or more to arrive at the scene of one out of every five fires, some even longer. Fort Washington’s company takes longer than nine minutes to arrive more than 60 percent of the time; Colmar and Northampton, 50 percent of the time; Dublin, 38 percent of the time; and Ottsville, Perkasie, Warminster, Hatfield and Towamencin each about 20 percent of the time.
n Numerous companies reported they got to fires in less than one minute. Bristol’s Third District and Abington Fire Department said they did so more than half of the time; Silverdale Fire Company, 14 percent of the time.
What these data snapshots don’t account for are the obstacles fire companies — particularly volunteer ones — face just getting the manpower to fight fires: Dwindling volunteers and gaps in coverage, limited municipal funding, and traffic and development are chief among these obstacles.
Nine minutes that matter
Take, for example, the fire at Mary Molnar’s Northampton home two nights after Christmas 2004. A table was on fire, and smoke was coming from the couch next to it, she said.
When the Northampton Volunteer Fire Department arrived — nine minutes after being dispatched to the scene, according to federal records — they found an inferno they couldn’t extinguish, though numerous other companies also responded. The house was a complete loss.
“It took them forever to get out here,” said Molnar, who has since moved. “My house never should have burned down.”
Statistics from the National Fire Protection Association make clear there may have been nothing the volunteers could have done. Fire grows exponentially, and on average, it takes eight minutes for a fire to grow out of the room where it began, making it far harder to extinguish.
“Once that fire gets out of the room of origin … your survivability starts to seriously degrade,” said Carl Peterson, director of the public fire protection division at the NFPA. That’s something Molnar has no trouble believing. If she had been in bed instead of drowsing in front of the TV, “I don’t think I’d be here,” she said.
An examination of records submitted to the U.S. Fire Administration showed that Northampton volunteers took nine minutes or longer to arrive at more than half of the fires dispatched on their home turf in 2004, the only year for which records are available.
Municipal leaders have long sought changes, though Northampton Supervisor Peter Palestina, the board’s emergency services liaison, said he thought the department’s response times compared favorably to those in other large townships.
Response times from many of the county’s largest townships aren’t available because they haven’t taken part in the federal reporting program.
In 1999, Northampton’s comprehensive plan recommended adding paid firefighters, more fire stations and public water service. Eight years later, none of those things have happened, Palestina said, though water is on the way, and the township is applying for a grant that would help pay for four firefighters. The grant, however, would require an increasing township match, and it’s not certain that local officials would agree to pay that, he said.
Development and demographics
With almost 27 square miles full of narrow, winding roads to cover, and more than 44,000 residents to protect, Northampton exemplifies a two-pronged demographic shift that has challenged volunteer fire departments in the last few decades.
On one hand, development has filled in the empty spaces, adding thousands of residents in areas that used to be farmland. Those houses are farther away from the historic downtowns where fire stations were first built, though in many communities more stations have been added.
The same traffic problems that bedevil commuters hinder volunteer firefighters, said Doylestown Fire Co. President Bill Cope, adding that drivers seemed ruder than ever. “Just because you’ve got a siren doesn’t mean they let you through,” he said.
“Traffic is probably one of the biggest factors involved in response time throughout the county, not just for fire but also (ambulance),” said Michael Dydak, Fire and EMS coordinator for Bucks County’s Emergency Services Departments, who also serves as fire chief for Bensalem’s Newport Volunteer Fire Co.
Yet even as development keeps firefighters busier than ever and traffic slows rush hour calls, the number of volunteers is thinning.
In 1976, there were about 300,000 volunteers throughout Pennsylvania, according to a state report. In 1985, there were 152,000. And in 2005, there were 72,000.
In bedroom communities, many volunteers work out of the area during the day and can’t answer calls.
Northampton doesn’t have enough volunteers during the day to use all three of its stations during work hours, Fire Chief Adam Selisker said. “The fact is that during the day during the week we are dangerously low on manpower.”
On weekdays, the number of volunteers available to take calls is “in the single digits,” and not all of those can answer each call, said Selisker. “I might get only 25 percent of them — so two or three, if we’re lucky, four,” he said.
Bolstering the ranks
To fight weekday manpower shortages, departments in Montgomery, Whitpain and Newtown townships have begun paying a corps of career firefighters during the day, and other departments are considering a similar shift.
While experts say it’s not for everyone, Bill Brightcliffe, Montgomery Township’s director of fire services, has the numbers to show it can be effective.
On weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., a paid staff of three is on duty, though they’re assisted by volunteers. The rest of the week, volunteers run all the calls.
In 2006, volunteer responses averaged just over seven minutes, while career staff got there in less than five minutes, according to Brightcliffe. Altogether, the department’s average response was about six and a half minutes, he said. With a 10.8-square-mile response area that’s home to about 24,300 residents, “I still think it’s a very good time for the volunteers,” Brightcliffe said.
The time looks even better when you consider that nighttime responses are often a bit slower than those during the day.
Volunteers and career firefighters train together quarterly, and the department has a program that reimburses volunteers for occasionally working day shifts, Brightcliffe said. “I think that mutual respect’s develeped when we see we’re all in the same business,” he said.
The township’s expecting to pay $571,000 for fire service in 2007, said finance director Larry Cregan. That includes about $250,000 in personnel costs.
Concerned that there weren’t enough daytime volunteers to handle a growing call volume, Montgomery Township made a controversial decision in 2001 to cut ties with the Colmar Volunteer Fire Department and create the Montgomery Township Fire Department in its place.
Years later former township supervisor Bob Kuhn still won’t speak publically about the dispute, but calls his vote in favor of the switch “probably one of the best decisions that I’ve made as a supervisor.”
“Response times have improved dramatically,” he said, and the staffing shortages have been resolved.
Variables to consider
Response time data, as analyzed by The Intelligencer, gives a better understanding of how quickly the area’s volunteers race to the flames, though fire chiefs say it’s more of a Polaroid than a finished portrait: blurry and out of focus in parts.
For some departments the reported response time is the moment when a battalion chief arrives on scene in a fire department sport utility vehicle. For others, like Northampton, it’s when the first fire truck gets there.
“There’s so much variation in the reporting that I think it’s difficult to draw a conclusion as to how any one department would stand to any other department,” said Northampton Chief Selisker.
“There are 61 fire companies in Bucks County, and realistically, you’ve got 61 different people doing the data collection and the reporting,” said Michael Dydak, who is fire and EMS coordinator for Bucks County’s Emergency Services Departments.
But others, like Thomas Savage, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute, say greater public disclosure is the best way to convince a community to open its pocketbook — or volunteer to join a fire department.
“If we collect the data, people will know about the problem, and then they’ll be more inclined to solve it. You’re not inclined to solve a problem you don’t know about,” Savaged said.