Life in the fast lane
Written by Peter Sells
Nov. 30, 2011, Toronto – A flurry of numbers came down the line this week, landing squarely on Toronto Fire Services (TFS). Some of them were bad, some of them were ugly; unfortunately, none of them could be described as good. The budget numbers and response times that appeared as separate news stories are related to a degree, if you dig deeper and look wider. TFS needs proper funding to provide enough muscle – but do the members need to show a little more hustle?
Regular readers of Fire Fighting in Canada will know that there has been a metaphorical fire axe poised in the air above TFS for the last few months, with the potential of as many as 300 firefighting positions hanging in the balance. Fire Chief Bill Stewart, his counterpart, Toronto Police Services Chief Bill Blair (who has been facing similarly proportioned demands for efficiency), and the executives of both union locals have been working public and media opinion very hard in the name of public safety. On Monday, the first glimpse of the City of Toronto 2012 operating budget was released, and while the news could not be described as good, it appears that mayor Rob Ford and his axemen may have blinked. The operating budget analyst notes document lists no permanent deletions of firefighting positions, rather there is this short-term recommendation:
“Removing the equivalent of three (3) additional trucks from service throughout 2012 will permit a deferral of hiring in Fire Operations and result in the reduction of an additional 68 firefighter positions.”
That may not seem too hard a pill to swallow, given the TFS staff complement of almost 3,200 and considering that the staffing levels are already below complement by more than 68 positions. A closer look however, may give the impression that TFS is being set up for death by slow torture instead of a quick, clean beheading. The 68 deferred positions are on top of what has already been deferred, and there is no guarantee on the duration or temporary nature of the deferrals. The analyst notes also include this recommendation:
“Council directed that a review will be undertaken in 2012 regarding the integration of Fire Services and EMS and consider the potential for a more efficient model of service delivery. It is recommended that further hiring be deferred pending the outcome of this review."
I have written here before that the idea of a fire/EMS merger; while it may have some opportunities for efficiencies of scale on the administrative side, is essentially a political shell game. Adding more medics into a system does not reduce the required number of firefighters any more than it reduces the need for library staff or bus drivers. That being said, I am willing to keep an open mind and see what any forthcoming study recommends. What worries me is what may happen in the interim. With 68 firefighting positions deferred on top of the existing 64 that have been deferred through 2011, TFS is starting each day behind the eight ball with a minimum of six apparatuses out of service before any other staffing fluctuations or variances are taken into consideration.
Reductions in response capacity must, of necessity, eventually have a negative impact on response effectiveness. Which brings us to this week’s second set of numbers: Tuesday’s Toronto Star reported that TFS has been in receipt of a consultant’s report since 2009 entitled Toronto Fire Services Quality Assurance Review. The report, according to Star staff reporter Kevin Donovan, indicates that from operators processing an emergency call, to dispatchers alerting fire halls, to getting firefighters on the road, all times are significantly slower than the North American standard. A link to the article appears on the Fire Fighting in Canada home page – go ahead if you want, I’ll wait right here until you get back . . .
In a nutshell, here are the data as reported in the Star:
• Time for 911 call centre to transfer caller to Toronto Fire dispatch – 30 seconds.
o The desired standard is 15 seconds.
• Time for a Toronto Fire dispatcher to notify the appropriate fire hall(s) – 100 seconds (plus an implied 25-35 seconds of conversation between 911 and fire personnel).
o Standard is 60 seconds.
• Turnout time in the fire hall - 185 seconds.
o Standard is 80 seconds.
• Travel time to fire call – Donovan states that the average is 4.5 minutes, it is likely that this is actually a 90th percentile figure.
The questions I would have asked, beyond merely quoting one consultant’s report with comparisons to consensus standards, are how does TFS’ performance compare to actual response data from other departments; and is it true, as Stewart has stated in response to the Star article, that it is difficult if not impossible for any fire department to meet these very demanding standards? Well it turns out that TFS had already asked itself those questions, and participated in a 2010 study by the Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF) to determine levels of compliance in large fire departments with NFPA standards 1221 (Standard for the Installation, Maintenance, and Use of Emergency Services Communications Systems) and 1710 (Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments). The FPRF is an independent non-profit whose mission is to plan, manage and communicate research in support of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) mission. The study, Quantitative Evaluation of Fire and EMS Mobilization Times, looked at data from 14 metro-sized fire departments including Toronto, Fort Worth (Texas), Orange County (Florida) and Fairfax County (Virginia).
o Standard is four minutes.
What other sources of information can we dig up? TFS has provided Fire Fighting In Canada with a copy of the 2009 report, then there are the actual NFPA standards, and Stewart’s public comments. Here are those times again;
• From NFPA 1221, the actual 95th percentile time for the 911 transfer should be 30 seconds, not 15 seconds as reported by the Star. The standard states “Where alarms are transferred from the primary public safety answering point (PSAP) to a secondary answering point, the transfer procedure shall not exceed 30 seconds for 95 percent of all alarms processed.” Donovan may be mistakenly applying this other portion of the same standard; “Ninety-five percent of alarms received on emergency lines shall be answered within 15 seconds.” That’s a totally different interval, which in the context of the Toronto system would be the time taken for a TFS calltaker to pick up a ringing line from 911. This time – nine seconds for TFS, according to the report, by the way - is included in the 911 transfer time. Donovan reported that it in Toronto it takes 30 seconds for the transfer process from 911 to fire, whereas the 2009 report clearly states that the average time is 30 seconds with monthly 95th percentile times of between 56 and 93 seconds. Why leave out this important statistic, unless you just missed it?
• NFPA 1221 does, in fact, have a target for alarm handling time of 60 seconds; however, the FPRF study found that large fire departments were achieving 90th percentiles of 92 seconds. The figure reported in the Star for TFS was 100 seconds. According to Stewart, the actual figure from 2008 that was in the consultant’s report was 97 seconds, and technological enhancements in the interim have already reduced that to 87 seconds with further reductions anticipated. So on this measure, TFS is not meeting the NFPA standard but is exceeding the performance of its peers. The 2009 report made note that “this data does not include the time taken by the dispatchers on the telephone prior to starting the record of the call in CAD which is estimated at 15-25 seconds.” Donovan appears to have inflated this figure by 10 seconds in the Star article.
• For responses requiring full PPE, NFPA 1710 has a target turnout time of 80 seconds. The FPRF figure of 123 seconds seems substandard in that context, and the TFS result of 185 seconds even more dismal. It is interesting that both the alarm handling and turnout times in the FPRF study were approximately 50 per cent higher that the relevant NFPA standard.
• NFPA 1710 has a 90th percentile target for travel time of four minutes. TFS does not meet this target but – and it is not my intent to minimize the importance of each second in each of these intervals – it is still achieving a very good result. The FPRF study did not analyse travel time, so I cannot present any peer measures in comparison. The increases in traffic volumes and calming measures combined with reductions in in-service apparatus make improvements in travel time difficult to anticipate.
In addition to providing FFIC with the 2009 report, Toni Vigna, TFS Division Chief for Policy, Project & Public Information included these comments on how TFS has responded to its findings over the last two years:
Based on the report Toronto Fire Services has since made the following improvements;
1. Designating a quality assurance manager to implement the report's recommendations and review the call management process.
2. Reviewed and improved the training requirements for communications center staff.
3. Identifying future technology upgrades, such as upgrading the fire station alerting system for faster notification to our fire stations.
Of the four measures for which TFS was cited as deficient in the Star article, one was actually meeting the standard, one was meeting the de-facto peer standard, one was notably deficient and one was deficient and under further pressure. On travel time, the mayor and council of Toronto have some serious strategic choices to make. You are only going to get what you pay for. Don’t kid yourselves that you are trimming fat or stopping the gravy train. Your current hiring deferrals are easing short-term budget pressures at the expense of increased public risk.
For the last word on turnout time, I will first defer to Richard Boyes, former fire chief of Oakville, Ont., and former president of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs. As part of a panel of fire chiefs at a 2009 fire command symposium in Mississauga, Boyes was asked to describe the challenges in today’s tight budget environment. From my review of that symposium, in the December 2009 issue of Fire Fighting In Canada;
Boyes advocated education on a number of fronts. Firefighters need to understand that they cannot take unwavering public support for granted, rather they need to be educated to provide the best possible service each day and “walk with a little bit of purpose in their step.”
None of the staffing or funding challenges faced by TFS can be cited or spun as having any effect on turnout time. Three minutes to get out the door? I can source and analyse data and apply my professional perspective to ensure that what is being reported about TFS or any other Canadian fire service is accurate and in the correct context, but I can’t put lipstick on a pig. Firefighters of Toronto, when the alarm tones sound in your station, walk with a little bit of purpose in your step.
Written by Peter Sells on 2011-12-08 17:00:22
Thanks, Rob. The comment was indeed intended to put some personal onus on the firefighters to step it up, but I cannot agree with your statement that the career fire service runs on egos and tradition. Tradition has its place, and we all have professional pride, but the career fire service also runs on innovation, dedication, and all too often, sacrifice. I appreciate your perspective, but my friends have not died of cancer or stress-induced heart attacks because of their egos.
Written by Rob on 2011-12-06 10:00:15
Thanks Peter, great article. I especially liked the last comments, putting more onus of the firefighters. It's about time when everyone plays nice together and get back to what fire fighting should be, community, and not the almighty buck and great pensions. The career Fire Service has run on EGOS and TRADITION for far too long.