On October 23rd, the Los Angeles Times published an article about LAFD’s response time performance to emergency calls. “No progress on LAFD 911 response times, new data show” blared the headline, summarizing data about how long it takes to; 1. process a 911 call and alert the closest response unit, 2. how long it takes the response unit crew to get on the unit and start “rolling” to the call, 3. how long it takes for the first due engine company to arrive at the location once they start “rolling”. But, being fast as a measure of customer service should only count for true emergencies, especially during these times of staff cuts and station closures.
The response time components outlined above are part of the National Fire Protection Association’s 1710 Standard, first published in 2001. This standard was the first to identify response time goals for marshaling resources at an emergency scene. Unfortunately, the initial benchmark times were (and some still are) unrealistic for all but the densest of cities. While the response time sections of the standard has been modified slightly over the past decade, it’s still not achievable by most, it not all, fire departments.
I applaud LAFD’ efforts in evaluating their response performance, and I encourage them to be blunt and honest in their analysis and reporting. In fact, EVERY fire department needs to lay it on the line about what they can and can’t do. Are they really as good as they say they are? Are they really meeting the NFPA 1710 standard? If a fire department says they meet all of the NFPA 1710 response time standards, I’d ask to see the analysis and raw data, have someone explain how they gathered it, and their response protocols.
Here are some skeptical questions to ask;
- Do the call receivers/dispatchers use a standardized and approved call triage system to interrogate callers? These systems quickly identify acute calls, and identify situations that are likely less acute, allowing more time to determine the appropriate response. LAFD uses such a system (albeit they have had recent issues with how it is used).
- How long does it take a crew to get to the rig? Emergency responders do not react the same to all 911 calls. Want proof? Just watch an episode of Chicago Fire (just kidding), or any of the YouTube fire buff videos of big city firefighters getting in their gear for “routine” calls. But, if the incident is dispatched as a building fire, cardiac arrest, drowning, imminent childbirth, etc. LOOK OUT! They will run you over getting to the rig.
- Has your local government invested in the latest digital technology to alert crews of an emergency? Analog alert tones that trip pagers/alert systems take up precious seconds of air time before a dispatcher can talk. Many departments and dispatch centers still rely on this 1970’s technology. (I’m flashing back to LACFD dispatcher Sam Lanier’s voice on the iconic 70’s TV show Emergency)
- Has the local government invested in GIS technology that constantly monitors the location of every emergency response unit, and recommends the closest unit to respond at any given moment? Sophisticated (and expensive) dispatch computer programs and hardware are being installed across the country. But, because of their ungodly cost they are being installed at a snail’s pace.
- Does the department have automatic aid agreements with adjacent fire departments, so regardless of the agency the closest response unit is dispatched? You’d be surprised how many departments don’t do this. We are VERY territorial in the fire service.
- Do the firefighters don all of their gear BEFORE climbing in the cab? The days of jumping on the back of a moving rig as it leaves the station are long gone. When responding to a fire, firefighters should be donning all of their protective turnout gear BEFORE hopping in the jump seat and fastening their seat belts. Here’s a short video example of how long (or short) it can take.
- Does the community have traffic signal preemption devices installed at all controlled intersections? These devices turn the traffic light green in the direction of travel for the response unit, and red for everyone else. They not only help speed up response times, they decrease the likelihood of an intersection collision.
- Does the department respond “Code Red” (red lights and sirens) to all 911 calls? If so, you should be asking why risk the motoring public (including the crew on the responding rig) to minor severity calls, like spilled antifreez, non-confirmed fire alarms, minor lacerations, or illegal burns? Responding balls to the wall for anything but legit critical calls is unnecessarily dangerous.
In my not so humble opinion, NFPA 1710 response time analysis should focus on critical call categories only, like; cardiac arrest, suspected heart attack or stroke, reported structure fires, or respiratory distress. In these situations, seconds do count. For everything else, time isn’t as critical a factor, and the public needs to accept this fact.