Are firefighters slowing down?

Several weeks ago, The Boston Globe published a two-part series that contended U.S. firefighters are getting slower in responding to fires. It claimed only a third of the fire departments in the country are reaching fire scenes within national standards for response times.

The Globe said that translates to only 35 percent of the departments in the country were able to get to building fires within six minutes of the alarm, a standard fixed in 2001 by the National Fire Protection Association. More than 4,000 people died in fires reached after that time, according to The Globe.

Only 58 percent of full-time departments met the six-minute goal in 2002, compared with 75 percent in 1986, the first year response times were recorded.

Vincent Dunn, a retired deputy fire chief from New York City and an author of fire safety books, was highly critical of the performance. “Fire protection in America is a myth,” he said. “These two subjects are the dirty little secrets of the fire service: the response times outside the center cities are too great, and the personnel responding, inside and outside the center cities, are too few. No one wants to talk about that,” Dunn said.

Loves Park Fire Chief Phil Foley did not buy that claim at all. “I don’t see how anybody can sit down and say a certain percentage are not meeting standards,” Foley said. “There are all different criteria. Eighty-five percent of the departments are volunteer. You have to incorporate a lot of things as far as response time.” One factor can be weather, he said.

When the weather is bad, it takes longer for volunteers to reach a fire scene. Another is that with a volunteer department, the fire suppression force must leave regular jobs and drive to the fire. “It’s important we get there as fast as we can, safely,” Foley said. “They must drive with due regard for life, safety and property. That’s one thing Loves Park is concerned about,” he said.

Foley said his department’s average response time for the last quarter of 2004 was nine minutes, a time he considers pretty good for a volunteer department. “The key is fire safety,” he said. “We’ve not lost a life in years.”

Rockford Fire Chief William Robertson observed: “It takes more than quick response time to be an effective department. You have to have adequate staffing.” He added that proper equipment and well-trained personnel also are vital. “We handle everything that is not a police matter,” Robertson said.

As to the time element, Robertson said: “Our average response time is about four minutes and 20 seconds. NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) breaks down response time into three components: from the time of the call, and then give us a moment from the time the dispatcher acts, and third is the time the equipment responds. Our current system only allows us to measure the time from dispatch to roll out. That’s the time I’m talking about. When we get the new system up and running, we’ll have a better understanding of what each one (component) takes.”

Chief Robertson added: “What we’re interested in is getting to 85-90 percent of the community in under five minutes. Seventy to 90 percent of our responses are less than five minutes.”

Robertson said there is a perception aspect to response time on the part of the public. Has the response slowed in recent years? He said there is really no way to tell for certain because data from those past years is not available for comparison.

The Globe’s study found that of the records on 3.3 million structure fires, collected from 20,000 fire departments across the country, some 4,000 people—about five a week—died in fires where response time exceeded six minutes. The paper said the actual total could be higher because less than half of all structure fires are reported to the National Fire Incident Reporting System database.

The newspaper noted that the six-minute standard is merely a guideline, not a legal requirement, based on NFPA estimates. The association would like to see the standard met in 90 percent of the calls. The standard has been approved by the International Association of Fire Chiefs, but not all departments have agreed with it. The National League of Cities also does not support it, and many smaller departments argue that the six-minute standard cannot fit every community.

The report noted that while the number of fires in the country has declined because of better prevention efforts, the number of calls for service to fire departments has doubled in the last 20 years.

Part of the problem is that newer, fuel-efficient homes and tighter construction cause a hotter fire and the heat is held in. Another consideration is that departmental budgets are less than they used to be in many cases.

Chief Billy Goldfeder, a battalion chief in suburban Cincinnati, said: “We’ve got to get enough people in there quickly. It all ties to money, what people are willing to pay for.”

Chief Foley echoed that sentiment. “What are people willing to pay for, a few major fires?” he said (

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