Fire Response Too Slow Across Much of Kansas City

Just three area departments met the national standard for fire response in recent years.

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.

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