If we look at the annual firefighter fatality statistics, several things stand out. One, for sure, is that we are still losing too many firefighters. Second, about one-half of the firefighter fatalities annually are due to health conditions—specifically heart attacks and strokes. Third, approximately one-fourth of the annual fatalities are caused by vehicular accidents.

Firefighting is a dangerous job. We must remember that if we don’t get to the incident because of a vehicular failure/breakdown, heavy traffic conditions, or an accident, we cannot help anyone. Breakdowns and heavy traffic usually don’t kill firefighters. Vehicular accidents do. It is not practical or prudent to tell a driver/chauffer to hurry up and drive faster on runs. Volunteer firefighters driving their own vehicles likewise should not speed to get to the scene 30 seconds faster.

Most departments have policies restricting the speed at which a vehicle can travel Code 3 on a run and mandating precautions such as stopping at all traffic-regulated intersections. So, considering that we have little control over traffic, street, and department procedures, the only way to get to an incident faster is to get out of the house faster. (Toledo’s answer to this month’s question will be given later in this article.)

—John “Skip” Coleman, deputy chief of fire prevention, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue, is the author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000), a technical editor of Fire Engineering, and a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board.

Question: Each year, more than 20 firefighters are killed responding to or returning from incidents. We all know that the only way to safely reduce response times is to reduce the time it takes to get out of the house. NFPA 1710 has a section that addresses response time and, specifically, turnout time (the time from station-acknowledged notification of the emergency until the time the response apparatus leaves the station). The standard calls for a turnout time of 60 seconds or less 90 percent of the time or better. Explain your department’s policy/objective on turnout time.

Bobby Halton, deputy chief, Albuquerque (NM) Fire Department

Response: All apparatus responding to emergency runs must turn out in one minute or less. This can be affected by a wide variety of things, but on most calls our numbers come close to, if not under, this standard. We have computer-aided dispatch (CAD), which captures our numbers; this also is a regular query on our run reports. Interestingly, our companies often report the destruction of the lower panels of our overhead doors, which try to block their responses to fires by rising at an agonizingly slow rate. We have termed this phenomenon “door suicide by confirmed working fire.” I guess we haven’t had to push our folks out the door; they are highly motivated to get there first.

Our policy is as follows: Use your emergency notification equipment, red lights, sirens, seat belts, lights, and lookouts; and be aware of the traffic and conditions you are creating and dealing with. We recommend that the driver and the co-pilot determine the route and work together to protect the company as they respond. We are very aware that it is not always possible to make our 60-second standard. I don’t recall ever needing to get ugly with any company in regard to turnout time.

Freddie Fernandez, battalion chief, Miami (FL) Fire Department

Response: We encourage all personnel to reach the apparatus in a safe and timely manner for all alarms. There is no built-in mechanism at the moment to address this issue. While call-processing time can be effectively measured, we still are not capable of prudently and accurately managing the turnout time and are performing a verifiable analysis to establish a consistent measurement of this time. The chief has looked into a few methods, such as GPS vehicle locaters, which would be able to plot the time when the apparatus actually rolled onto the apron and began response. Another approach would be to have the officer give a radio report at the exact time the response begins. This method, again, is difficult from the aspect of accountability and reliability of the data that must be gotten from the fire officer at a time when many other factors, like size-up and crew safety, are going through his mind. This is an area where marked improvement is definitely possible.

John J. Salka Jr., battalion chief, Fire Department of New York

Response: This is an interesting question for several reasons. First, I think we in the fire service are being asked to achieve two goals simultaneously. They (and I’m not quite sure of who “they” are) want us to respond safely, without accidents and certainly without injuries or fatalities—and that is good. The problem is that so many people look at response times as the single measure of a fire department’s capabilities. In New York City, response times are measured down to a fraction of a second. When investigating fire fatalities or the impact of fire station closings, response time is the major factor both sides quote and use as ammunition to make their point. Obviously, getting to the scene of a fire as quickly as possible to confine and extinguish the fire before it gains headway and becomes a serious problem is vital, yet we have these constant 20 or so firefighter fatalities involving this activity every year.

I have several suggestions:

  • We must separate routine or nonserious response situations from those that have the potential for serious consequences to life and property. Once we do this, we can tailor our response mode (a secret word for speed) to fit the situation. Using lights and sirens to respond to a water leak or a trash can fire on the sidewalk is just not real bright.
  • Call takers need to get more and better information from people reporting emergencies, so we can better categorize these incidents and respond appropriately. If we respond at a slower, more constant, speed in urban and suburban situations, it will usually result in a safer response with an acceptable response time.
  • Apparatus drivers need to be specialized trained personnel who are professional drivers. The more time a person spends behind the wheel, the more respect he has for the job and responsibilities. Most chauffeurs in FDNY possess a real “ownership” of their company and the members on their apparatus because many of them are “regular” (full-time) apparatus drivers. This specialization, along with adequate training, provides for a person with real driving skills and familiarity with the unique behavior of fire apparatus. A timely response also takes the excited firefighter, who wants to get to the fire really quickly so he can stretch a line and get in there. If you think about it, the fire apparatus driver and the interior structural firefighter riding the apparatus sort of need to be on two different wavelengths. The guy on the jump seat wants to get there really, really bad; the apparatus driver should want to really, really get there!
  • I know I already mentioned it, but all fire apparatus drivers need to attend an official fire apparatus driver training (emergency vehicle operations) course. FDNY chauffeurs attend engine or ladder chauffeur school and are trained on every type of apparatus they may have to drive. How any fire chief can put a firefighter with a basic driver’s license behind the wheel of an oversized, overweight fire apparatus loaded with water, tools, and firefighters without training is beyond my comprehension and certainly beyond his liability coverage.
  • Rural fire departments need to set serious speed limits. This applies also to larger departments with rural areas on their outskirts. I don’t care how far you have to travel. If you are going 65 mph with a fire apparatus and something (anything) happens, injuries and fatalities are a certainty. If you have to travel so far to the ends of your response area that you must speed to get there before the place burns down, then you don’t have an apparatus response problem, you’re missing a fire station!
  • Did I mention seat belts? WEAR THEM!

Ron Hiraki, assistant chief, Gig Harbor (WA) Fire & Medic One

Response: The 60-second turnout time is our standard. We recognize that the actual time may vary according to the activity in which the members are engaged and the type of response. Obviously, it takes a few seconds longer to get dressed for a fire response than an EMS response.

We use the NFPA 1710 standard as a goal or motivator. Our members understand that “response time” begins when the first tone or bell is heard. As such, our members make a dedicated effort to make their way to the apparatus floor, don personal protective equipment (PPE) quickly, and get out of the door a little faster. However, just like driving with red lights and sirens, safety must be a priority. Would we not have to reduce our response time if one of our members were to slip and fall or sprain an ankle while running to the apparatus?

We use several administrative and engineering methods to help us meet the 60-second turnout time standard. Administratively, battalion chiefs and company officers coordinate their activities with other stations, plan where they park and where they are working, and listen to the radios for calls to take for other units if they are closer. Our engineering methods include dedicating compartment space with coat hooks/shelving on EMS units for quick access and donning of PPE and providing gear bags for PPE to keep it organized on the apparatus.

Our battalion chiefs regularly conduct hose and ladder drills in which members respond from nonemergency activities in the station. This simple step adds a little realism and allows members to assess their own turnout time.

Robert Krause, captain, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue

Response: Toledo adopted the term “scramble time” and uses it in place of “turnout.” The clock begins ticking for responding fire crews at the end of the second round of dispatch information. Crews are timed by our CAD system; the time stops when the responding company officer pushes the “en route” button on the apparatus’ onboard MTD or verbally acknowledges by radio to the fire dispatcher they are in fact responding. Even on the best days, this system may experience an anomaly and incorrectly record the “scramble time” by an additional one or two seconds.

To offset this condition, our administration reviews scramble times in excess of 75 seconds. Fire Administration is well aware of and understands that “scramble times” will not meet the national standard on every single response; it accepts the 10-percent exception rate to this standard. With that said, it has been made very clear to all fire crews that every effort shall be made to respond in a timely fashion in accordance with this standard.

The Alarm Office tabulates the data collected for “scramble times” and provides statistical analysis to Fire Administration for review. This information is studied, and the operations deputy forwards it to the respective battalion chiefs for dissemination to the fire crews. Our department continues to work to meet this national standard on a consistent basis. Only through self-awareness and careful analysis can we gauge our progress in meeting this national standard.

Bob Zoldos, captain, Fairfax County (VA) Fire and Rescue Department

Response: We follow NFPA 1710 standards for response times. This includes a goal of five minutes from dispatch to arrival on-scene for a suppression unit. For EMS incidents, we have adopted the goal of six minutes from dispatch to on-scene intervention by advanced life support paramedics.

Although we do not directly address reference “turnout” time, it is accepted that one minute of the response time is for company turnout. For dispatch purposes, our department’s communication manual states that a unit has two minutes from the time of dispatch to status itself as “en route.” If the unit fails to mark responding, the dispatcher will attempt to contact the unit. If there is no response, the next closest similar unit will be dispatched.

Rick Lasky, chief, Lewisville (TX) Fire Department

Response: When you look at the events that have led to the line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) and injuries involving our firefighters’ response to and from incidents, several issues come to light in most cases. Aside from the fact that some departments might have a problem trying to meet the response section of NFPA 1710, the injuries and LODD suffered while trying to get to and from a call—as is also true for fireground LODDs and injuries—generally involve conditions that have occurred previously.

We just didn’t heed the warning, take the lessons learned, or pass on the information—thereby allowing the same accident to occur or the same chain of events to take place. Among those contributing factors that keep appearing are the following: traveling at too high a rate of speed, failure to stop at a red light or stop signs, not wearing seat belts or riding on the “outside” or rear (tailboard) of the vehicle, poor or a lack of proper apparatus maintenance that contributes to apparatus failure, lack of training in apparatus operations and familiarization, lack of proper warning lights on emergency apparatus and personally owned vehicles used for response, and driving tankers or tenders too fast.

In addition to addressing the above safety issues, a defensive driving program should be instituted for all members. In Lewisville, we’re fortunate that each stoplight is priority controlled, but that in itself does not relieve the driver operator from the responsibility of driving safely. The main goal of our priority control program is to get traffic going in our direction of travel and stopped in all other directions, not to provide a method to “bust” through an intersection without caution.

I have yet to hear of a department that has suffered an accident in an attempt to meet NFPA 1710’s response requirements, not to say there hasn’t been any. I hope we’re not at the point where we push aside safety in our efforts to meet a standard. NFPA 1710 serves as a great guideline for many of us. The vast majority of our firefighters are extremely safe, cautious operators. But if we are to have any kind of an impact on reducing injuries and LODDs, we must address these contributing factors, or we will continue to suffer losses.

Craig H. Shelley, fire protection advisor, Saudi Aramco

Response: Our department, even though it is not a municipal department within the United States, strives to follow NFPA standards whenever practical. We have set target times for turnout and response that meet the NFPA standard. However, we break down into two phases the one-minute figure for turnout—alarm receipt and actual turnout. We allow 30 seconds for our station dispatcher to receive the alarm from its source, which includes recording it and notifying the station personnel, and another 30 seconds for actual turnout.

In many cases, which have been documented in performance drills, the turnout time is longer, based on the infrastructure of some of our facilities. Being in an industrial setting, our crew rooms are not always next to our apparatus bays, so there is a time delay in reaching the apparatus, which is housed in a separate building. These issues have been highlighted; the new fire station design has eliminated this problem to allow us to meet our response criteria.

Another factor is how the alarms are received. Automated dispatching systems can greatly reduce turnout times by having computers transmit the alarms to the stations as soon as the alarm assignment is generated, based on the information manually input by the dispatcher. Automatic in-station lighting and apparatus door opening by dispatchers can also reduce turnout times.

As with any firefighting activity, the mechanics of turnout should be drilled. When I was a young firefighter in FDNY, we had a captain who was not satisfied with our turnout time; he had us practice the mechanics until we shaved time off. We did improve, especially when the practice took place at 3 a.m.

On another note, it has always been said that the place to improve your response time is in the station—i.e., do not speed to an alarm to save time. Instead, shave the time off during turnout. This way, we hopefully will arrive sooner and in one piece.

Brian Singles, firefighter, Hampton (VA) Fire Department

Response: We do not have a set policy for turnout time per se, but our objective is to get out as quickly as possible with safety always in mind. During the day, our turnout time is usually less than 60 seconds. We have a guideline for response time from time of the apparatus response to actual arrival time in first-due districts. We try to make that within four minutes.

As for turnout time, we have been using a pre-alert dispatch system for approximately 10 years that has really sped up the turnout time for us. There is a little friendly competition between some of the stations in the city to see who can get out fastest. When I first became a firefighter and started driving the apparatus, my old captain stressed to all his drivers that the most important things to know are exactly where you are going before you leave the station, the shortest route, and how to arrive in one piece.

William J. Dougherty, firefighter/safety officer, Middletown Township (NJ) Fire Department

Response: NFPA 1710 targets “career” or “substantially career” departments. The annual statistics include both career and volunteer service responders. Our department does not specify a particular response time but “a response as fast as safely practicable.” For a volunteer department to do otherwise would risk “forcing” members to respond (to the station or scene) in an unsafe manner. This Roundtable question should be limited to career departments.

Jay Riley, lieutenant, City of Green (OH) Division of Fire

Response: Our department does not hold the 60-second rule to an absolute ceiling for turnout time. The response is to be “timely” and is left to the discretion of the on-duty station officer. Although this model can lead to inconsistency in turnout times, it relaxes the rigidity involved in a set time limit. The station officer is able to take appropriate safety measures and ensure that the company is fully seated, seat belted, and so on.

This model produces average response times of less than one minute during the day and less than two minutes at night. Firefighter safety is one of the current “hot topics” of fire administrators and supervisors. Our actions as leaders speak louder than any words. We would never send a firefighter into a burning building without an SCBA, Why would we allow firefighters to be standing or unrestrained in a moving emergency vehicle?

Bill Hopson, assistant chief, Beachwood (NJ) Fire Department

Response: It should not matter if it is NFPA 1710 or 1720 that talks about response times and the need to make it safe for firefighters to respond to an incident. The safety aspect should begin well before the alarm is received. Once firefighters board an apparatus, the burden for their safety should rest on the operator of the apparatus and the officer who rides the seat. If neither understands his role in safely arriving at or returning from an incident, the problem has existed well before that next accident or untimely death. In almost every single case where the driver and the officer have worked together to ensure a safe arrival at and a safe return from the incident, the number of accidents with fatalities has been very small.

What continues to be constants are firefighters who do not believe there are seat belts in fire apparatus and drivers who believe an 8-foot-wide by 35-foot-long engine handles the same as their personal vehicles when responding to a call. We require all our firefighters to gear up properly before boarding and the officer of the apparatus to board last, ensuring that all doors are closed and all crew members are seated. The same policy is in effect when returning from an assignment.

It should not matter if it’s a working fire or a carbon monoxide alarm investigation; the driver and the officer of the apparatus have to set the example prior to leaving the station. When firefighter safety is compromised because flames are showing or there is an MVA entrapment, common sense and responsibility have been thrown out the door. We need to ensure that we get there first before we can spring into action. At times, it seems we need to better understand that “reduced rate of speed” means just that and that not everyone is aware of our presence when we are on the road.

The issue of who you allow to drive your apparatus often sparks debate. Too often, we do not focus enough on a person’s ability to drive, yet we will spend hours upon hours making sure they can properly “operate” that apparatus. To reduce your response time, fire officers must know when it is time to leave the station. Do you go with a reduced crew, or do you realize the incident calls for a full crew? Are you willing to allow “shortcuts” simply because it’s a working fire, or do you stay true to your training and SOPs?

It all comes down to what is acceptable risk and what you gain by taking that risk. Are we contributing to these deaths because we fail to adhere to our written and stated policies? Or, are these incidents responding to and returning from calls just accidents? I suspect it’s the former, not the latter. By taking unnecessary risks, the chances for an untimely and tragic “accident” will continue to increase. It may just be a matter of time. The single biggest reasons for a delayed response should be because a fire station that should be open and staffed is not or weather conditions have made it nearly impossible to travel the roads. We should respond when we are ready and capable of doing so.

Joseph Pronesti, captain, Elyria (OH) Fire Department

Response: Our department has no set response time criteria. One of our major problems is finding an easier dispatch notification process. We have four fire stations. On-duty firefighting personnel staff dispatch, located at our number 1 fire station. This dispatcher must receive the emergency call, gather the information, and dispatch each house separately by a direct-line ring-down telephone line. This seriously slows our response time. The dispatcher has to give the same information to each station—as many as four times if all houses go, which is the case on a structure fire. We have applied for and received a FEMA grant to help improve this situation.

Lance C. Peeples, instructor, St. Louis County (MO) Fire Academy

Response: The old chiefs said it best, “Time lost getting out of the house can’t be made up on the road.” In short, firefighters must know their geographic response districts. They need to mount the apparatus as quickly as possible after donning their turnout gear. Drivers must not be permitted to drive like a bat out of hell. And officers who permit such conduct should not be officers. Drivers must not allow adrenaline to cloud their judgment. Finally, SLOW DOWN! STOP at intersections. WEAR YOUR SEAT BELT! To die racing to a dumpster fire is not to die a hero but rather a fool.

Scott Luedtke, captain (ret.)/safety officer, City of Hanahan (SC) Fire and EMS

Response: I find fault with the notion that a reduction in death and injury resulting from responding to incidents could be attained through quicker turnout times from the station. Although I believe the NFPA 1710 times are appropriate, the reasons personnel are killed or injured are the following: no or insufficient driver training; no or insufficient appropriate licensure of drivers; failure of personnel to be belted into position or personnel’s riding the step; personnel’s bunkering out in the seat because of quicker turnout time policies; “Sirencide!”; drivers who feel they have the right-of-way and do not drive with due regard; lack of maintenance of the vehicle; and lack of enforcement of policies, or no policies, concerning sleep deprivation, alcohol consumption, and driver capabilities.

My directive to personnel has been to be dressed, seated, and belted prior to the vehicle’s moving. This includes movement from the stall to the ramp. Gloves and helmets, as well as SCBAs in seats, could be donned en route. Monthly driver training exercises, roadway familiarization, and vehicle inspection procedures are mandated. Response speed is the speed limit; based on traffic and conditions, it could exceed 10 mph above on clear roads. Due regard is paramount.

This is not an all-inclusive list or “the only way to do it.” I know there is a better way out there, and I have seen much worse. When we get to the point of slowing down all emergency responders (fire, police, EMS, rescue, etc.) there will be fewer accidents and certainly fewer deaths and injuries. The personnel will get to the scene just as quickly if they know how to adjust for the problems ahead instead of having to stop on a bumper and wait for the traffic to move and then get back up to speed.

Josh Thompson, battalion chief, Avon (IN) Fire Department

Response: Currently, our department has no “set-in-stone” policy regarding response times, specifically turnout times. We have a general guideline of one minute during the day and two minutes during the night in which to mark responding. My philosophy is that you turn out on runs as quickly and as safely as you can. Things I do not like to see include running, taking your sweet time, and not putting on your proper PPE when you can or putting it on en route without your seat belt on.

We are called to respond to others’ emergencies. To effectively mitigate the “emergency,” we must arrive focused and safely in the quickest manner possible. There are many other ways to decrease response times, such as enhanced 9-1-1, well-trained dispatchers, preemption devices, and effective location of apparatus/stations. The bottom line is that we must arrive safely, mentally and physically ready, and quickly.

On another note, as a volunteer/reserve firefighter for the Greencastle (IN) Fire Department, we do not use “blue lights,” which, in my opinion, typically just asks for trouble. We usually respond from off station. As volunteers, we must arrive just as safely—this is not our emergency—if we are to effectively assist in mitigating the incident.

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