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Realistic response times

Fire-department proficiencies are measured in a number of ways, including cost per capita, underwriter surveys, annual fire losses and governmental benchmarks.

February 14, 2012
By Dan Haden

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Fire-department proficiencies are measured in a number of ways, including cost per capita, underwriter surveys, annual fire losses and governmental benchmarks. Recently, in several Canadian cities including Calgary and Toronto, there has been considerable attention on one particular measure – fire-department response times. Understandably, communities are passionate about the ability of their fire departments to respond quickly, and most people comprehend the inextricable link between quick response and reduced losses of life and property. Taxpayers, and reporters, however, often don’t understand the context in which response time standards are applied and measured.

FFIC-Response2  
Turnout time measures the firefighters’ ability to disengage from non-emergency activities, travel to the appropriate fire apparatus, don personal protective equipment, board the fire apparatus and safely secure themselves for travel. Photo by Laura King


 

The most commonly applied response-time standards are contained within NFPA1221 (Standard for the Installation, Maintenance, and Use of Emergency Services Communications Systems), 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) and NFPA 1720 (Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Volunteer Fire Departments). A number of major Canadian fire departments now maintain quality assurance processes that measure their capabilities against these standards.

However, recent research funded by the NFPA, published by The Fire Protection Research Foundation and conducted by Rob Upson, a graduate student and deputy fire marshal, and Kathy Notarianni, head of the department of fire protection engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, raises questions about the empirical validity of certain established NFPA 1710 response-time data.

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Response-time components
NFPA 1710 (2010 edition) references three time segments from NFPA 1221 – the alarm transfer time, the alarm answering time, and the alarm processing time.

  • The alarm transfer time is the time interval from the receipt of the emergency alarm at the public service answering point (PSAP) (for example, a 911 call centre maintained by a police agency) until the alarm is first received at the fire department communication centre.
  • The alarm answer time is the time interval that begins when the alarm is received at the communication centre and ends when the alarm is acknowledged at the communication centre.
  • The alarm processing time is the time interval from when the alarm is acknowledged at the communication center until response information begins to be transmitted via voice or electronic means to emergency-response facilities (ERFs or fire stations) and emergency-response units (ERUs or fire apparatus).

NFPA 1710 (2010) contains a further time segment – turnout time – which is the time interval that begins when the ERFs and ERUs notification process starts by either an audible alarm or visual annunciation, or both, and ends at the beginning point of travel time. (Travel time begins once a unit is en route to the emergency)

Essentially, the turnout time measures the firefighters’ ability to disengage from non-emergency activities, travel to the appropriate fire apparatus, don personal protective equipment, board the fire apparatus and safely secure themselves for travel.

Pursuant to NFPA 1710 (2010):
4.1.2.1 The fire department shall establish the following objectives:

  1. Alarm handling time to be completed in accordance with 4.1.2.3.
  2. Eighty seconds for turnout time for fire and special operations response and 60 seconds turnout time for EMS response.

This combines with a further requirement that:

4.1.2.4 The fire department shall establish a performance objective of not less than 90 per cent for the achievement of each turnout time and travel time objective specified in 4.1.2.1. Consequently, career firefighters are required by the standard to achieve turnout times of 80 seconds for fire and special operations responses, and 60 seconds for EMS responses, at least 90 percent of the time

Turnout time achievability
According to the study, called Quantitative Evaluation of Fire and EMS Mobilization Times and published in May 2010 (it can be found at www.nfpa.org/foundation), the researchers aren’t convinced of the realistic achievability, or safety, of the current objectives.

“To a large extent, these benchmark times are based on qualitative data, experience and assumptions, and do not have a strong body of empirical data to justify them,” the researchers say.

There are three basic measures of central tendency in statistics – the mean, the median and the mode. The mean (commonly called the average) is the most descriptive and most frequently used measure and is determined by the sum of a set of values divided by the number of values.

In reviewing a 2008 study of firefighter safety and deployment that looked at 38 simulated exercise trials in career fire departments, Upson found a mean turnout time of 70 seconds, with just 80 per cent of the simulated turnouts at or below the 80 seconds specified by NFPA 1710.

In a separate study, The Centre for Public Safety Excellence/Deccan International investigated 15 career fire departments in 2007 and found a mean turnout time of 81 seconds for fire responses and 69 seconds for EMS responses between 0700 and 2200, with just 34 per cent of fire response within 60 seconds and just 45 per cent of EMS responses within 60 seconds.

Another study, conducted in 2007, looked at 100 responses in the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service as part of its integrated risk management plan and found just 85 per cent of turnout times under 81 seconds.

In their study, Upson and Notarianni say that the current NFPA turnout time objectives “may be unrealistically short in today’s fire service environment and may encourage unsafe practices in an effort to meet unrealistic alarm handling and turnout objectives.”

Research and findings
Upson and Notarianni firstly compiled and statistically analyzed actual recorded turnout times from a group of large fire departments – including more than 183,000 responses from Toronto Fire Services – and compared those turnout times to target times in NFPA 1710. The researchers reported both daytime (0600-1800 hours) and nighttime (0000-0600 hours) responses.

Secondly, Upson and Notarianni analyzed and reported on simulated turnout times from a number of baseline turnout exercises performed under standardized criteria developed by the project’s technical panel across a diverse group of fire departments.

With respect to actual recorded turnout times, the researchers found that the mean turnout times fell within current benchmarks (80 seconds for fire and 60 seconds for EMS), but for only about 60 per cent (not 90 per cent) of the fire calls, and for only about 54 per cent (again, not 90 per cent) of the EMS calls. The time actually required for turnout 90 per cent of the time was 123 seconds for fire and 109 seconds for EMS.

When the difference between daytime and nighttime responses (not currently considered by NFPA 1710) was factored, night-time responses had mean turnout times well above the benchmarks. About 21 per cent of nighttime fire calls were completed in 80 seconds or less, and about 12 per cent of nighttime EMS calls were completed in 60 seconds or less. In order to achieve 90 per cent, fire responses required 158 seconds, and EMS responses required 144 seconds.

During the baseline turnout exercise, the researchers discovered another factor not currently considered by NFPA 1710: the precise point at which the turnout time ends and the travel time begins. Two criteria were established: wheels rolling for when the apparatus begins motion, and crosses sill for when the apparatus begins to exit the station (when the apparatus crosses the line between the bay floor and the pavement). Notwithstanding, the simulated turnout times also exceeded the NFPA 1710 benchmarks. The simulated calls fell within the 80-second benchmark, but only for 80 per cent of the wheels-rolling trials, and only 70 per cent of the crosses-sill trials – each case described by the researchers as “well below the 90 per cent targeted in the standard.”

Factors affecting turnout time
While designing the standard distances for the baseline turnout exercise, the researchers also collected station layout data from participants. The study says station layout can be a significant variable in actual turnout times. When actual station layout data was compared to the exercise layout, the researchers found that the average station would require up to twice the distance and time to reach the ERU as was provided in the exercise. Therefore, the simulated turnout times, which already exceeded NFPA 1710, may be significantly lower than actual turnout times.

Some of the other factors that may affect (and possibly increase) turnout times include stairs, detour to restroom, policy for signalling en route, opening ERF bay doors, policy for gathering response information, level of station wear required and transmission delay.

Time analysis can become a slippery slope of excessive measurement. A more preferred approach might be to review policies and programs to assure they encourage an organizational culture that rewards quick disengagement from tasks and movement through the turnout process.

Here’s an anecdote that illustrates the different styles: In speaking with a senior officer, the discussion came to having to visit the restroom during the turnout process. He suggested, not in jest, that he would seek to transfer anyone who was incapable of responding without first visiting the restroom to a non-emergency response section. Imagine the effect on administration, human rights and labour relations. The next day, a junior officer suggested that the need was created by an increasing tendency to wait, instead of going at the first sign like we were taught to do years ago. He was absolutely right. If we don’t wait, we will statistically reduce the need during turnout and likely improve turnout times. This was a simpler, cultural solution with no policy (or transfer) required. Mentoring will achieve it. I’m aware of the complexities, and the skepticism.

The solution(s) will require more, meaningful departmental-level research in quality assurance as we wait for the possible effect(s), if any, of this report on the NFPA 1710 revision process. In the meantime, it might be imprudent to accept and apply the current NFPA 1710 turnout times without prior consideration of the effect of this research on each fire department generally, then each fire station location specifically – if for no other reason than the suggestions in the report that the current times may be unrealistically short and may encourage unsafe practices.


Dan Haden is a firefighter with Toronto Fire Services. Contact him at firemail@rogers.com


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