Firefighters from departments across the country are arriving to fires later each year, and barely over a third of calls nationwide meet national standards for response time, according to an analysis by The Boston Globe.
In Massachusetts, only 54 percent of local fire departments were able to reach 90 percent of building fires within six minutes, a standard set in 2001 by the National Fire Protection Association. People waited 10 minutes for firefighters at 214 building fires in 2002, the last year that data was available, and there have been 2,786 such fires since 1990.
Nationwide, only 35 percent of departments were able to meet the six-minute goal in 2002, compared to 75 percent in 1986, when alarm times first began to be collected.
“Fire protection in America is a myth,” said Vincent Dunn, a retired New York City Deputy fire chief and author of books on fire safety.
“These two subjects are the dirty little secrets of the fire service: The response times outside the center cities are too great, and the personnel responding, inside and outside the center cities, are too few. No one wants to talk about that.”
The Globe reviewed public records of 3.3 million building fires collected by the National Fire Incident Reporting System by 20,000 fire departments nationwide. The newspaper published the findings Sunday in the first of a two-part series.
The report may be the first systematic effort to measure fire department performance using response time data, which has been collected since 1986 under the reporting system kept by the U.S. Fire Administration.
'Every minute counts'
The Globe found that more than 4,000 people died in fires — or about five per week — in which the fighters took more than six minutes to respond. The actual number could be higher, because fewer than half of structure fires are reported to the database, and reporting is voluntary.
The six-minute standard is a guideline, not law, based on the NFPA’s estimates. The association recommends meeting that standard in 90 percent of calls.
It is difficult to tell how many deaths would have been prevented had firefighters arrived sooner. Elaine Allen, a statistics professor at Babson College who reviewed the Globe’s findings, noted that “every minute counts.”
The standard, however, has not been embraced by all. The National League of Cities and many small fire departments have argued that the benchmark cannot be made to fit every community. The NFPA standard has been endorsed by the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
In the 1970s, scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology found that at that time, people had about 17 minutes to escape before being overcome by heat and smoke. Today, the estimate is three minutes.
“We’ve got to get enough people in there quickly,” said Chief Billy Goldfeder, who heads the fire department of a Cincinnati suburb. “It all ties to money, what people are willing to pay for.”
Though the number of fires nationwide have declined with prevention efforts, the numbers of calls to departments has double over the last 20 years. Fire chiefs add that firefighters are taking longer to get to blazes because of more work and fewer staff.
The problem is also exacerbated by newer, fuel efficient homes, which burn hotter because the construction holds in the heat. And, fire department budgets are shrinking.
The Globe calculated, using U.S. Census data, that spending for fires went from an average of 6.1 percent of municipal spending in 1987 to 5.7 percent in 2003. In Massachusetts, 800 paid firefighters have been lost since Sept. 2001 through layoffs and attrition.