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Posted on Tue, May 29, 2012 : 10:01 p.m.

Ann Arbor Fire Department's struggle to meet response standards not based on travel time

By Tony Dearing

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 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 |

To understand how having two fewer fire stations might improve response times, you have to understand what the standards are and what it takes to meet them.

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, 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.


Edward R Murrow's Ghost

Sun, Jun 3, 2012 : 1:09 a.m.

The Ann Arbor Chronicle slices and dices Mr. Dearing's explanation: GN&GL

John Hritz

Wed, May 30, 2012 : 5:41 p.m.

There seems to be plenty of information on performance based on the standard (which I don't dispute). What's not clear to me is if the standard takes into account the number of fires (and other reasons for a call) per year for our geographic area and their intensity. I guess this would be some sort of normalized cost per fire and property/life loss per fire. Using time on scene is one approach, but it may or may not indicate whether training/equipment/staffing is suffering. In short, it sounds like we are gaming the system to some extent.


Wed, May 30, 2012 : 3:38 p.m.

Please stop saying that they are "struggling to meet" the times. What they are doing is *failing* to meet the standards, pure and simple.


Wed, May 30, 2012 : 11:03 a.m.

The NFPA is the recognized authority nationwide. Pretty surprising that a city the size of Ann Arbor knowingly doesn't record statistics as defined by the NFPA. Overall, it appears that the city's fire department has lagged for years below any acceptable standards, and residents should be alarmed and vocal.

Stephen Lange Ranzini

Wed, May 30, 2012 : 10:24 a.m.

I agree that both critical measurements should be measured. In our bank, as CEO one of my mantras is "you can only manage what you can measure!" A better solution than cutting two of the fire fire stations would be to have 88 fire fighters and not the current 76, since then I am told the fire department will be able to staff each station properly to get four fire fighters on each truck for all three shifts. Unfortunately, the chief doesn't even hire all the fire fighters budgeted, which is 82.

Alan Goldsmith

Wed, May 30, 2012 : 10:24 a.m.

"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..." Like shooting fish in a barrel...

Alan Goldsmith

Wed, May 30, 2012 : 10:22 a.m.

"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." So what you are saying is reporting should be viewed with skepticism? Don't worry--your readers already do that.


Wed, May 30, 2012 : 2:42 a.m.

Generally, an excellent article, Mr. Dearing. However, regarding the turnout and travel times, it seems to me that the overall response time is ultimately what's important. Internally, it would be helpful for a Fire Dept. to know the breakdown between turnout and travel times so efficiencies can be achieved by focusing on the two different activities. Nonetheless, however they might achieve it, if they can get the fully staffed truck to the fire in or below the recommended response time, that is what would matter to me.


Wed, May 30, 2012 : 4:37 p.m.

Ah, yes, your last sentence in your reply says it all, doesn't it, as it pertains to Ann Arbor's current AAFD staffing situation. Thanks.

Craig Lounsbury

Wed, May 30, 2012 : 1:15 p.m.

well said Mr Dearing

Tony Dearing

Wed, May 30, 2012 : 12:07 p.m.

In terms of total response time, yes, that's what matters most to the person who calls 911. If you place that call, you want a fire truck to arrive in 5 minutes, 20 seconds or less. But the difference between turnout time and travel time does matter. Travel time is largely a product of the distance between the fire and the closest station. Turnout time can be more of a matter of readiness and training. If turnout time were the problem, you could potentially address that without having to open or close fire stations.