Fire Response Too Slow Across Much of Kansas City

By the time Leah Davidson ran back from calling 911 on a pay phone early this month, firefighters already were pumping water on her Kansas City, Kan., home.

But last weekend in Leawood, firefighters slowed by road construction took seven minutes to reach a blaze that caused about $150,000 in damage to a $288,000 home.

Where you live can determine how quickly help will arrive during a blaze that threatens lives or property.

Just three area departments -- Kansas City, Kan., Gladstone and Sugar Creek -- met the national standard for fire response in recent years, The Kansas City Star found while reviewing available data from 1999 through 2002.

Davidson, whose son's bedroom was engulfed in flames, was fortunate to live in one of those cities. But folks who live in booming southern Jackson County or the Northland's Shoal Creek valley may have to wait much longer — 10 minutes or more — for a firetruck, The Star learned. Even in upmarket Hallbrook, response times lag behind the national standard.

That matters. A house fire can double in size each minute and can reach spontaneous ignition of an entire room in five minutes or less. There are about 3,500 deaths a year from structure fires nationally, and 75 percent of those fires occur in residences.

Kansas City has suffered 62 fire-related deaths since 2000. The metropolitan area recorded at least 23 deaths last year. On average, structure fires cause millions of dollars in property damage each year in the area.

The National Fire Protection Association set a standard, accepted by most full-time departments, that the first crews should arrive within six minutes of the time the fire was reported and be able to do this 90 percent of the time.

Kansas City, Kan., reported 94 percent success, Gladstone reported 91 percent and Sugar Creek reported 90 percent. Kansas City says it can make it 81 percent of the time. Results for other area departments ranged from 17 percent to 89 percent.

Many area departments did not report data. Independence, for instance, cannot calculate its record because of a limited computer system.

Though a variety of factors can delay firetrucks, many area departments share one big obstacle: explosive suburban growth taking place where fire stations don't exist. Some departments are raising taxes and building new fire stations. Others merely try to cope.

Homebuyers may be unaware of the issue.

James Schulenberg, his wife and their two preteen daughters moved about four years ago to the new Fairways subdivision in Kansas City, North. They chose the area because it was outside of the city, and they didn't even think about being 10 minutes away from a firetruck.

"I never gave it any thought," Schulenberg said. "In eight or nine minutes the house could be gone."

Nationally, an estimated 58 percent of full-time fire departments achieve the response-time standard.

The six-minute guideline allots one minute for dispatchers to alert firefighters, another minute for firefighters to get on the road and four minutes to drive to the fire.

Some fire departments say they cannot accomplish the goal 90 percent of the time largely because they lack funding for enough stations. Other reasons can include traffic, lack of integration among neighboring departments or firetrucks being unavailable because they are working other calls.

Sometimes, it is unclear whether a faster response would have made a difference.

Firefighters took eight minutes to reach the Orr family's burning house last October in Olathe. But by the time the Fire Department was called about the early morning blaze, the fire already had filled the upper floors with smoke. Justin Orr woke in his basement bedroom and found his father lying unresponsive on the first floor. He ran to get a neighbor to call the fire department. Five members of his family died.

Earlier this month, firefighters took seven minutes to reach a fire in a jail under construction in southern Johnson County. It sustained at least $1.5 million in damage.

Data show that only about half of the larger local departments reached a fire within six minutes at least 80 percent of the time.Volunteer and rural fire departments generally fare poorly because they have vast coverage areas and fewer resources. Johnson County Fire District No. 2, which covers 240 square miles in the southern part of the county from four stations, meets the six-minute goal just 52 percent of the time.

The Central Cass County Fire Protection District, which covers 212 square miles, has a five-man crew during the workweek but just two persons otherwise. If a structure fire breaks out during off hours, they have to wait for a volunteer to arrive at the station. The district's average structure-fire response time was nearly 15 minutes in 2003.

Urban areas are far better protected, as they have greater population density and more fire stations. Most areas of developed Johnson County and Kansas City fall within a four-minute drive time from fire stations.

Different departments have different abilities to measure their response times. The Kansas City Star commissioned from Johnson County a map that shows how far firefighters can drive from stations within four minutes at the speed limit.

More than a dozen neighborhoods on the map are unreachable within that time, including:

From Belinder Road to the state line and 71st Terrace to Somerset Drive in Prairie Village.

Off Ridgeview Road south of 151st Street in Olathe.

Around the Falcon Ridge Golf Course near 95th Street and Woodland Road in Lenexa.

In Leawood, houses surrounding the Hallbrook Golf Course fall outside the four-minute coverage area. A few blocks west, however, homes are double-covered by being within four minutes of two fire stations.

"Short of putting in another fire station or having people roaming around 24 hours a day, there's really not a whole lot we can do," Leawood Fire Deputy Chief Randy Hill said of Hallbrook.

Although a firetruck can speed to an emergency call, officials don't want the big, heavy vehicles to go much faster than the limit.

"Our rule is you can't do anything for anybody unless you get there," Overland Park Fire Chief Dennis Meyers said.

Communities on both sides of the state line are racing to keep pace with suburban growth. Voters in some cities and fire districts have agreed in recent years to tax themselves to meet that challenge. Others have not, and some departments are just treading water.

Consider north-central Clay County, where upscale housing plots are appearing rapidly.

"The Shoal Creek valley will contain a city the size of Sedalia without a fire station," Kansas City Fire Chief Smokey Dyer said. "It can take nine to 10 minutes (now) to get over there."

Partly to address that concern, Kansas City voters in 2001 approved a quarter-cent sales tax to build two stations in Clay County and repair old ones around the city. Construction on the first of the new stations is to begin this year at Missouri 152 and North Brighton Avenue. The $5.5 million station is scheduled to be finished by summer 2006.

Meanwhile, renovating aging stations in Kansas City means their crews have to be temporarily housed elsewhere — and that can add to response times.

"We're actually increasing our response times in our efforts to improve our stations," Dyer said.

In Lee's Summit, voters approved a bond issue in 2002 for a seventh fire station, which is to open in 2007 at Scherer and Pryor roads.

That would have made a major difference for Mary and Chris Theis, whose home in the nearby Monarch View subdivision caught fire in June 2001 while they were out of town. The first call from a neighbor came in at 8:43 p.m., and firefighters arrived at 8:52. That's nine minutes. The first water from the hose did not start until 8:54 p.m., a full 11 minutes after the call came in.

The blaze caused more than $25,000 damage to a home worth more than $300,000. And that was under what Lee's Summit Fire Chief Thomas Solberg calls “the best-case scenario.”

"The truck was in the station, and it was evening so there was not a lot of traffic," he said. "If it had been rush hour, the time would have been a lot longer."

The new Lee's Summit station will cut response times to the Monarch View and Eagle Creek developments by at least half, Solberg said.

The most direct solution to shorten response times is money.

Some communities recently approved more expenses. Others are discussing what to do. But in some areas, residents declined to pay more.

The Central Jackson County Fire Protection District, which serves burgeoning Blue Springs and surrounding areas, secured voter approval in 2002 for a bond issue and a tax levy to build a new station and staff it.

Opening its newest and fifth fire station a year ago on South Adams Dairy Parkway helped the district meet the national standard 88 percent of the time. Still, it took longer than seven minutes to respond to 10 percent of the district's structure fires in 2004.

"You can have all the standards you want," Chief Steven Westermann said. "But ultimately it's the citizens who decide what level of protection they want."

Lenexa has budgeted for 21 more employees to staff a station proposed to be built near Woodland Road and Prairie Star Parkway, and the city's capital-improvement plan includes buying land for the station.

Shawnee, where growth in the far west means a six- or seven-minute drive for firefighters, is in initial discussions about whether to build a station northwest of Woodland and Johnson drives. The city has not determined a funding source.

"I wouldn't say it's on the near horizon," Fire Chief Jeff Hudson said. "But the city expects and realizes that when there's growth, we need to answer that growth with expanded services."

The Sni Valley Fire Protection District, which straddles Jackson and Lafayette counties, failed to convince voters in November to approve a 42-cent levy increase. That forced the district to close its Bates City fire station. A residence fire on Quarry Road in Lafayette County caused $22,000 in damage in the 15 minutes it took for a truck to arrive from Oak Grove.

In some cities, anxiety about growth and limited fire resources are leading to novel ideas.

A new fire station to serve southern Olathe was supposed to open in 2003. Budget constraints have pushed it back to 2007.

Olathe Fire Chief George Bentley says he cannot wait that long. He wants to buy or rent a house to use as a makeshift station until a proper one can be built.

"We know that station is going to be busy the day it opens," Bentley said.