3 fire service myths: Data, response times and coverage equity

Leaders must acknowledge that some accepted “truths” do not align with reality


By Todd Sheridan

Not everyone agrees why certain standards have been adopted by the fire service. Some argue that standards have been developed based on science or data, while others believe they have been cultivated through years of experience. Whatever the source, the relevance of standards merit discussion by local departments, affiliated groups and local legislative bodies on how the fire service can best serve the community in the future. With this in mind, let’s examine three fire service myths that we have come to accept as true but, in reality, don’t align with reality.

Myth 1: The fire service has excellent national fire data driving policy decisions

This myth challenges the notion that the fire service collects usable data through the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) for research that drives both national policy and decision-making. In fact, in 2016, the Senate Committee on Appropriations expressed concern over NFIRS and recommended that FEMA address the shortfalls and long-term planning needs of NFIRS.

NFIRS was established following the publication of the America Burning report and the subsequent creation of the Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974. This Act was ahead of its time, and one of the goals was to begin a national database to improve fire service decision-making.

However, in a 2016 article by Jim Crawford titled “Updating NFIRS,” it was recognized that data collection and analysis was a huge problem for the fire service. In 2013, the International Associations of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) identified that the fire service lacked good data and described the issues as a “wicked problem.”

Today if you do a quick Google Scholar search, you will see that there is limited use of the NFRIS data being quoted for research. Understanding the inherent challenges with the available data, we may have to think critically before making decisions to tackle the U.S. fire problems identified by the NFPA based on this data.

The response times outlined in NFPA 1710 and 1720 helped start the conversation, but achieving the goal may be physically and fiscally unobtainable for a number of localities. (Photo/Seth Lasko)
The response times outlined in NFPA 1710 and 1720 helped start the conversation, but achieving the goal may be physically and fiscally unobtainable for a number of localities. (Photo/Seth Lasko)

Some fire service leaders suggest we should follow the model framework for the National Emergency Medical Services Information System (NEMSIS). NEMSIS is a collaborative system to improve patient care through the standardization, aggregation and utilization of point-of-care EMS data at a local, state and national level. In 2007, NEMSIS developed and implemented a formal process to upload electronic data, and today electronic patient care software uses a standard data dictionary to upload specific data points in a standard format. By 2015, this standardized reporting allowed for over 50 peer-reviewed research publications.

If the fire service updated the NFIRS system to a more standardized approach, like NEMSIS, the industry could begin meaningful research, improving leaders’ understanding of fire service’s current performance and therefore facilitate better policy decisions.

Myth 2: NFPA 1710 response time standards are achievable in the real world

This myth holds that the response time requirements outlined in NFPA 1710: Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments – as well as the complementary standard for volunteer agencies, NFPA 1720 – are achievable across the board for all localities.

The NFPA released the original 1710 standard in 2001. The goal was to reduce fire deaths and property loss by organizing deployment in fire suppression and EMS operations. Today NFPA 1710-5.2.4.1.1 states, “The fire department’s fire suppression resources shall be deployed to provide for the arrival of an engine company within a 240-second travel time four (4) minutes to 90 percent of the incidents.”

If you factor in an 80-second turnout time, 15 second call answer time, and the 60-second call-processing time, plus the 240 seconds travel time, not to include time before being notified or call center transfers, a best practice agency’s total response time is approximately 6:31 measured at the 90th percentile. Further, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) surveyed the 50 most populous cities and found that 34% of them do not meet the standards of 240-second travel time requirements for the first-due engine companies.

In most communities, it may be cost-prohibitive to hire more staff, relocate stations or build enough additional fire stations to meet 1710. Ultimately, it is up to local legislative bodies to determine an acceptable level of risk for response time, station locations and staffing – and what the locality can actually afford. NFPA 1710 and 1720 helped start the conversation, but achieving the goal may be physically and fiscally unobtainable for a number of localities.

Myth 3: The same number of fire apparatus 24/7 results in equitable coverage

In exploring this myth, it becomes clear that the same level of coverage for each hour does not provide equitable coverage. Volumes and system capacity ebb and flow. As requests for service increase during specific hours of the day, overall system capacity is pushed to the limit, which can lead to increased response times and limit the effective response force available.

The claim that any additional fire or EMS apparatus needs to be staffed 24 hours a day to ensure equal coverage is far from accurate. Considering that the highest response volumes occur during midday, then why not use peak-of-day resources to cover the increased volume? Wouldn’t it be a prudent use of taxpayer dollars and provide more equitable system capacity during high demand periods?

For example, consider your agency has 10 staffed fire engines, and at night you average less than four responses per hour, providing a 60% capacity ratio. However, during the hours of 8 am to 8 pm you average seven calls per hour, providing a 30% capacity ratio. As I explained on EMS1.com, evaluating where the highest volume occurs, agencies could dually locate a peak-of-day resource with the 24-hour-a-day resource, which will increase capacity, maximize efficiency, be conscientious of taxpayers’ dollars, and provide workload relief for 24-hour units.

Looking to the future with facts

What’s a fact – and not a myth – is that every community is different. Careful thought and planning are required when considering future service delivery. Consistent data, realistic response goals and developing staffing patterns to meet demand are all critical points to examine as we develop standards and policies for the fire service of the future.

About the author

Todd Sheridan, BS, is a senior associate with public safety consulting firm Fitch & Associates. Sheridan has served as the operations director for a large university medical center’s EMS system and previously worked in several high-performance fire and EMS agencies. Reach him directly at tsheridan@fitchassoc.com.

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