OPINION: Ann Arbor Fire Department's struggle to meet response standards not based on travel time
If the Ann Arbor Fire Department reorganizes itself in a way that reduces the number of fire stations from five to three, would it come closer to meeting response time standards that it’s falling well short of now?
That question can only be answered by having a full understanding of the degree to which it’s falling short on response times, and why. Since AnnArbor.com first reported last year that the department was struggling to meet response time standards, a great deal of additional information is now available, and based on that information, we owe the community a more complete and accurate analysis of this issue than we have offered to this point.
The Ann Arbor Fire Department openly acknowledges that it is not meeting fire response standards - a conclusion confirmed by ICMA, which the city hired last year to analyze fire operations in light of budget cuts to the department. In March, Fire Chief Chuck Hubbard proposed a reorganization plan that would close three fire stations and reopen Station 2 on the city’s south side, reducing the number of fire stations from five to three. He estimates that his plan could roughly double the department’s ability to get four firefighters to a fire within four minutes, a key response-time standard.
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
The standards are set by the National Fire Protection Association, and they are not mandatory, though they represent best practices, and fire chiefs can adopt the standards, or some portion of them, based on the needs of their community.
The most basic standards address staffing and response times. The NFPA standard for staffing says an engine company or ladder company should be staffed with a minimum of four firefighters. The Ann Arbor Fire Department does not currently meet this standard. In most situations, it staffs a truck with three firefighters, which means there aren’t four firefighters on the scene until a second truck arrives from another station.
The NFPA also has response time standards that say 90 percent of the time, the first truck with appropriate staffing should arrive at a fire within four minutes of travel time, and that all companies assigned to the first alarm should arrive within eight minutes. The NFPA standards allow responding companies another 80 seconds of “turnout time,’’ which refers to the time it takes, after an alarm comes in, for firefighters to don their equipment, get on the truck and start the engine. Once the engine has been turned on, everything after that is considered travel time.
So in order to meet NFPA standards, once a fire alarm comes in, the first truck should take no more than five minutes and 20 seconds to arrive at the fire (with four firefighters aboard) at least 90 percent of the time. The Ann Arbor Fire Department is falling well short of that standard.
In May 2011, at a time when Ann Arbor City Council was considering a proposed budget that called for deep cuts in police and fire services, AnnArbor.com published a story reporting that Ann Arbor lags behind other communities when it comes to fire department staffing levels and struggles to meet response time standards. The story was based on a review of more than 1,800 pages of fire department records obtained through the state Freedom of Information Act.
Among other things, the story looked at five fires categorized as “major’’ fires in 2010, and reported that the department failed to meet response standards for three of those fires. We understand now that our report was in error, and that what we were presenting as travel time was actually the total response time, which included both travel time and turnout time. For instance, we reported that it took the first arriving truck 6 minutes, 15 seconds to travel to a fire in the 900 block of South State Street on April 3, 2010, and the first arriving truck took 6 minutes, 21 seconds to travel to a fire in the 500 block of West Stadium Boulevard on April 13, 2010. Both of those fall outside of the 5 minute, 20 second standard for turnout and travel time, but they fail to meet the standard for the cumulative time of the two, and not for travel time alone. The response times for the other three incidents ranged from 2 minutes, 37 seconds to 4 minutes, 9 seconds.
Our original reporting was based on reports supplied to us by the city, which listed en route times. We were told that en route times represented travel times. That information was challenged by Dave Askins of the Ann Arbor Chronicle, and after additional discussions with Chief Hubbard, the chief clarified that en route times on the reports he gave us represented the combination of both turnout and travel time. We have published a note on the original story to correct that.
Ultimately, response standards are cumulative. The response time for any particular fire may fall within the standard or not; how departments measure themselves is on the performance for all fires. That is where the ICMA report, released in final form in January of this year, is helpful.
ICMA reviewed 215 structure fires and 206 outdoor fires that occurred between March 2010 and February 2011. It found that the average response time for structure fires (turnout time and travel time together) was 5.6 minutes. It also gave a 90th percentile response time, which when calculated for turnout and travel time, amounts to 7.3 minutes. These levels are well above the standard of 5 minutes, 20 seconds that a department is supposed to meet 90 percent of the time.
ICMA found the response times for outdoor fires to be even worse, averaging 6.8 minutes for turnout time and travel time, with a 90th percentile response time of 10.4 minutes, when adjusted for turnout and travel. The NFPA standards do not distinguish between structure fires and outdoor fires when it comes to response times. It says the same standards apply for any call that requires fire suppression.
It also should be noted that what these figures represent is the first truck on the scene, not the number of firefighters on the vehicle. We know that based on the way the Ann Arbor Fire Department is currently staffing, most of the time the first truck will only have three firefighters on it, meaning it doesn’t fully meet NFPA standards even if it takes less than 80 seconds for that company to turn out and less than 4 minutes to travel to the scene.
Ken Willette, division manager for the Public Fire Protection Division of the NFPA, told me that a department seeking to meet NFPA standards either should assure that there are four firefighters on a responding truck, or have a plan for how it will achieve that in the future.
The thrust of the reorganization plan that Fire Chief Hubbard introduced in March is aimed at spreading firefighters across fewer stations so that each of the remaining three stations is staffed by at least four firefighters at any given time. Using computer modeling, he has produced charts that show the locations of the current five fire stations, as well as the locations of the three stations that would operate under his plan. Based on a plotting of the actual locations of 681 fires in the city over the past decade, Hubbard estimates that a truck could arrive at 72 percent of those locations within a travel time of 4 minutes, compared to 36 percent of the time now.
Hubbard’s reorganization plan has been put on hold at least until later this year, in part because of concerns over whether the department could actually meet projected response times while the Stadium Boulevard bridges are being rebuilt, impeding traffic flow in that part of the city.
Ideally, since the reorganization plan calculates travel times, it would be helpful to know how close the department is to meeting travel time standards right now, and how close it is to meeting turnout times. While overall response times are a combination of the two, a failure to meet turnout times requires different solutions than problems with travel time.
According to Chief Hubbard, the department does not specifically track turnout time and travel time, just the combination of the two. Huron Valley Ambulance produces a CAD report for every fire run that includes a dispatch time, a “respond’’ time and an arrival time. The “respond’’ time is when the fire department calls in to confirm that it has received the alarm and is responding. The CAD report treats the interval between the dispatch time and the respond time as turnout time, and the interval between the respond time and the arrival time as travel time. However, Hubbard says the department often doesn’t respond right as it’s leaving the station, which means the recorded turnout times and travel times are approximations at best.
If turnout time and travel time weren’t both important, the NFPA wouldn’t have separate standards for them. The failure of the fire department to accurately measure both of those factors is a short-coming in its current system. It should be measuring both and it should be accountable for both. If it were to begin tracking and reporting turnout time and travel time in an accurate manner now, there’d be enough data available by later this year to help City Council make the best decision about the reorganization plan and fire response overall.