(This is part one of a two part series.)
Traditionally, at least in the fire service, we have planned our resource deployment in a one dimensional approach. We usually talk about resource deployment in terms of fire stations, specifically where to locate new stations. We have matured somewhat in speaking of performance measures related to deployment, but this has usually been a matter of measuring response time, particularly travel time. We have not been very good, however, in pairing the travel time measures to other measurable and desirable outcomes. Even when we have been able to develop talking points for locating resources (the “where” question), we have not been very good at answering questions about “when” and even worse at answering questions about “why.” We must be able to intelligently answer all three questions to be effective in planning for, educating about, and getting support and approval for existing and future resource needs.
It Is Essential To Plan for Deployment
It is essential that we dynamically assess current and plan for future resource deployment because so much is at risk if we make bad decisions, or even worse, fail to make decisions at all. Deploying resources for fire, rescue and EMS services is a very expensive proposition. Fire stations and rescue or EMS bases are very expensive capital projects.
According to Construction Market Data, in their index of fire station construction projects which have started in the last 10 years, the average cost for a new fire station is $1.61 million. Of those 68 projects, 51 were by suburban or urban communities and averaged $1.94 million. Rural projects are much less expensive with 17 averaging $.62 million. Two multi-mission public safety facilities cost $4.89 million and $8.54 million respectively. But the bricks and mortar costs of a fire and rescue station or EMS base is not the cost that scares decision makers the most. It is the on-going operating costs. You can estimate that the annual costs to operate a staffed urban fire company at approximately $1 million per year.
Time is a critical and measurable element in emergency response and can be directly related to incident outcomes. Although the current research and information on time to flashover is undergoing significant updating, it is clear that there is a point in time before which we must assemble and deploy an appropriate and effective response force in order to impact the outcomes for lower loss of life and injury as well as reduced property losses. The NFPA Fire Analysis and Research Division reports differences in outcomes in NFPA Standard 1710, Annex A: Explanatory Material. There is a documented increase of more than 1,000 percent in civilian deaths when fires extend beyond room of origin to floor of origin. Civilian injuries increase by 153 percent and property loss per structure fire increase by 149 percent. Survivability of the victim(s) has been associated with time for both EMS and fire incidents. Even the safety of our responders and reasonable expectations for responder capability has been related to time in recent research.
The American Heart Association 2015 CPR Guidelines still tell us that brain cells begin to die between four and six minutes once blood flow ceases. Some research suggests that survival rates drop very quickly from 50 percent at approximately four minutes to 20 percent at six minutes, and 10 percent or less at eight to 10 minutes. With the introduction of defibrillation, chances of survival increase, especially in the six to 10 minute time frame.
All of this data discussion is presented to reinforce the concept that resources must be located in accordance with a hazard and risk based deployment plan requiring strategically locating assets to provide a timely response in order to change the outcomes.
What Are the Challenges?
The biggest challenges to effectively assessing and deploying fire resources are a culture that resists change, and an industry that traditionally avoids the use of data in decision making. This results in an inability to answer the tough questions that are asked when trying to justify existing and additional resources. This is especially true when trying to present and defend new fire stations and the resources necessary to operate effectively from them. The biggest challenges for local community decision makers are the high economic impacts of deploying fire fighting resources.
Anaheim Fire Chief Randy Bruegman makes the case in the recently released International City/County Management Association (ICMA) digital book, “Building Resilient Communities During Disruptive Change: Public Safety,” makes the case that the number of fires will continue to decline due to gains in building construction and code enforcement, adoption of automatic sprinkler systems and innovative community risk reduction efforts. The role of EMS as the primary service demand for fire agencies will continue to rise. The methods of resource deployment will change for EMS service demand in response to research and innovation by early adopting organizations. The new deployment methods and models will create major challenges to a deployment model based primarily on fire hazards and risks.
Governing Magazine, a major publication followed by decision makers in local government who fund resource deployment, has published a number of articles challenging the actual deployment of fire resources, or at least challenges the industry to intelligently and objectively defend requests for resources. In a Governing article published in July of 2015 titled “Why We Need to Take the ‘Fire’ Out of ‘Fire Department’,” Phil Keisling, Director for the Center for Public Service at Portland State University, stresses that deployment decisions should be made primarily on the EMS mission rather than the fire mission, and through lower-cost operating alternatives, such as adding many more ambulances or specially-designed Rapid Response Vehicles (RRVs).
Although originally proposed as far back as 2009, ICMA has made a major effort through publications, educational offerings, and its own consulting services to local government, that the public safety official should be much better informed and prepared to answer critical questions related to resource decisions. Their well-known “20 Tough Questions to Ask Your Fire Chief – When You’re Cutting Budgets” article published in January of 2011, still serves as part of the basis for much of the discussion in their training for city and county administrators. The ICMA workshop “Asking Police and Fire Chiefs the Right Questions: Making Data Driven Decisions” presented by Leonard Matarese, Director of Research and Project Development, Center for Public Safety Management, LLC, (all fire chiefs should take this webinar or view the CD-ROM) leads attendees through topics that include determining current and appropriate workloads, effective utilization (especially low firefighter utilization), determining the “necessary” number of firefighters and fire fighting equipment.
To be fair, in the workshop I attended, Matarese did make the point that when considering low firefighter utilization, you must consider the “insurance value” of having some appropriate level of fire fighting capability on standby for potential fire events that can have significant consequences.
Begin with Hazard and Risk Assessment
The process of answering critical deployment questions begins with the self-assessment of existing and projected hazards and risks. Before you can design appropriate deployment, you must understand your historical service demand, the factors that have driven that demand, and some idea of future service demand projection.
It is important to understand the differences between hazards and risks and where you might turn for help in conducting a hazard and risk assessment. A number of NFPA documents, including NFPA 1710, define hazard as “A condition that presents the potential for harm or damage to people, property, or the environment.” Risk is defined in most NFPA documents as “A measure of the probability and severity of adverse effects that result from an exposure to a hazard.”
An agency must be able to define both the fire and non-fire hazards that exist in the community. There are some really good resources available to help an agency conduct a risk assessment. NFPA standards frequently include a requirement and guidelines for conducting fire risk assessments, usually related to a process or product scenario. One guideline can be found in NFPA Standard 551, “Guide for the Evaluation of Fire Risk Assessments.”
A new standard, NFPA 1300, “Standard on Community Risk Assessment and Community Risk Reduction Plan Development” is currently under development and in the Public Comment phase. This new standard can be viewed in draft by NFPA members — every fire officer should be a member — on www.nfpa.org/1300. Follow the links on the web page for Public Comment. NFPA 1730, Organization and Deployment of Fire Prevention Operations, provides an overview of a risk assessment and community risk reduction plan process.
The most referenced guides for conducting a community hazard and risk assessment and for producing a plan for standards of cover available in the last two decades have been published by the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE). CPSE publishes a manual that provides specific guidance titled “Community Risk Assessment: Standards of Cover.” The current edition does not contain as much educational and background information about conducting hazard and risk assessments as previous editions. It was re-designed to serve as a companion to CPSE’s “Fire and Emergency Service Self Assessment Manual,” extrapolating upon the brief information provided in the self-assessment manual, and specifically for guidance on fulfilling the requirements of Category II, which deals with assessment and planning, for agencies seeking accreditation under the Commission on Fire Accreditation model. It remains a good guide for communities interested in conducting hazard and risk assessment.
Let’s restate the purpose of conducting a risk assessment using the NFPA risk definition. Before we can plan fire station locations we must first assess the community’s risk of bad outcomes from exposure to hazards. We cannot plan for every potential hazard and risk and must make some decisions, based upon probability and consequence, which resources to deploy in what configuration to deal with the typical or most consequential event. For most communities, this will result in planning for responses to structure fires and medical emergencies. The most common structure fire with the highest civilian death and injury rate in most communities will be the residential structure fire. Also, the most typical medical emergency with the greatest risk of civilian death are likely cardiac events.
Once a community determines the specific hazards and risks for which they wish to deploy resources, they must determine what those resources will be and with what capability. To aid in that process, a critical task analysis should be conducted. This entails identifying the critical tasks necessary to achieve a desired outcome in a specific situation. After defining the critical tasks, it must be determined what resources are needed to complete those tasks. The resources will include numbers of firefighters and officers, but will also need to address apparatus, tools and equipment. There are many methods available for conducting a task analysis but for fire service planning purposes, several research projects, standards, and guidelines already exist.
NFPA 1710 provides guidance for an effective initial response force to fire incidents in a single family dwelling, an open-air strip shopping center, an apartment, and a high-rise. The National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) published two fire staffing studies addressing residential and high-rise fires which can be found at www.NIST.gov/publications. Some sample critical task templates do appear in the CPSE Community Risk Assessment: Standards of Cover Manual in Appendix A.
Once the community has determined the typical risks, desired outcomes and appropriate resources to deploy, THEN it can begin to look at fire station locations from which to deploy those resources. It is important to point out that it is not a useful practice to begin spotting station locations prior to conducting a hazard and risk assessment, and prior to setting service level capability and outcome objectives.
While conducting a historical analysis for service level objective performance most modern models strongly recommend that the agency conduct both distribution and concentration studies. Distribution studies look at the distribution of fixed assets, like fire stations and fire companies, to determine first due unit availability and performance. A distribution study would match the needs for a first due unit arriving in a timely manner to provide necessary intelligence, establish command, assign follow-on units and begin action appropriate for the unit and crew capability and critical task requirements.
Concentration studies are necessary to evaluate the availability and performance of the initial effective response force. Structure fire scenarios, along with other special missions like technical rescue and hazardous materials require more than a single unit response in order to safely and effectively conduct mitigation efforts.
Regardless, for today’s most common deployment models for combat fire forces, it all begins with distribution of fire stations. There are some systems that are moving away from the reliance of a fixed response force located in fixed sites and becoming a more mobile force. This looks to be a very effective method of deploying assets in light of the changing missions and service demands facing modern fire departments. But, solid research and data on mobile forces are likely a generation away.
There are also other methods of dealing with the fire problem. We all know the effectiveness of Community Risk Reduction Planning and implementation through education, enforcement, engineering and design. Fire sprinklers can solve most of our fire problem. But, all alternative systems are human dependent at some point and we know that humans tend to commit errors. There will always be a need for some basic fire fighting capability.
Next issue we’ll discuss looking at existing and future locations for fire stations.