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Chief says response standards are tough to meet

lkingNov. 30, 2011, Toronto – Toronto Fire Services (TFS) says it has taken steps to improve its response times since a consultant found in 2009 that the department did not meet NFPA standards.

November 30, 2011
By Laura King

Nov. 30, 2011, Toronto – Toronto Fire Services (TFS) says it has taken steps to improve its response times since a consultant found in 2009 that the department did not meet NFPA standards.

The consultant’s report, which has been made available to Fire Fighting in Canada, shows that TFS fails to meet the recommended six-minute response due to factors including dispatch issues and slower-than-standard turn-out times.
The report’s finding were made public by The Toronto Star on Tuesday.

TFS Chief William Stewart said in an interview on Wednesday that the six-minute standard is an ideal that is rarely met by North American fire departments, that Toronto needs more stations and optimum funding to better its response time, and that the department has instituted several dispatch and technical improvements since the report was commissioned.

He said it’s difficult for laypeople to understand how the fire service measures performance and how the response standards work, and therefore how to interpret the report’s findings.

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“What I’ve found is that [people] don’t understand 90th percentile,” Stewart said. “We say nine times out of 10 we’re going to have a vehicle there in X number of minutes or seconds. We all know that NFPA 1710 and NFPA 1221 certainly identify 90th percentile and that’s how we gauge ourselves. It’s our hope to achieve those standards. We’re not there yet, that’s clear. But in fairness, there are probably very few fire services in North America that in fact are.”

TFS Division Chief Toni Vigna said in an e-mail Wednesday morning that the department has designated a quality assurance manager to implement the consultant’s report's recommendations and review the call-management process. She said the department has reviewed and improved the training requirements for communications center staff and is identifying future technology upgrades, such as the fire-station alerting system, for faster notification to stations.

The Toronto Star story indicated that Stewart had withheld the report from the media. Stewart rejected that assertion and Vigna reiterated the department’s stance.

“In accordance with standard City of Toronto policy, the 2010 request for the report was referred to the City's Corporate Access and Privacy office,” Vigna said.

She said Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (MFIPPA) exemptions were considered by the privacy office and the city’s legal department.

“In their professional opinion, exemptions to MFIPPA were based on third-party implications and labour negotiations at the time.”

As for response times, Vigna noted that at the time of the consultant’s review, the 90th percentile for the emergency call-management process (alarm time to dispatch) was 1 minute, 37 seconds.

“This time encompasses all call processing in the communications center to the start of the notification of the responding emergency vehicles. By the end of 2010, this time was reduced to a 90th percentile of 1 minute, 27 seconds. In September of this year, a CAD (computer aided dispatch) upgrade was implemented, which will further reduce the dispatch time.”

Vigna said dispatchers face considerable challenges, particularly with the increased number of cell-phone calls to 911. Sixty per cent of TFS’s 911 calls come from cell phones.

“Our response times reflect such factors as growing cellular phone use,” Vigna says. “Cell phone calls generally take longer to process than land lines because the call taker must verify the location/address; it does not automatically identify an address as it would with a traditional land line call, and in a diverse, multilingual environment it can take longer to obtain the information we need from the caller.”

Stewart, meanwhile, said funding is they key to meeting the standards and cited anticipated challenges including traffic and vertical response times with an unprecedented number of new highrise condo towers being built in Toronto.

“We have an intense building boom that’s occurring now in this city with 160 cranes in the air,” he said. “Our call volume continues to rise and puts pressure on the system . . . We will continue to provide services to the city of Toronto based on the funding that’s given to us, and that’s the issue. As long as funding is approved by city council then we’ll be responding to the citizen’s needs on a daily basis.”

Neither the consultant’s report nor the Star story compares Toronto’s response times to those of other similarly sized cities.

“The NFPA can’t tell me,” Stewart said. “They can’t, because I asked them [Tuesday] morning if they’re measuring response time to the standard, and no, they do not.”

For more about response times, standards, and the consultant’s report, see Peter Sells’ Flashpoint blog.