Sunday, September 21, 2008

No time to spare

By Doug Caruso, Martin Rozenman and Jim Woods

In a race against a house fire, which can double in size every minute it burns, firefighters should strive to get there in six minutes.

That improves their chances of saving lives and property, according to a widely accepted national standard.

But the farther you live from central Ohio's urban centers, the less likely it is that your fire department will make it in time, according to a Dispatch analysis of state fire-run data.

As the region has grown, especially in the counties surrounding Franklin County, departments have tried to keep up, bringing on professional, full-time firefighters and adding stations. Still, response times in some of the fastest-growing areas -- including Pickerington, Powell, New Albany and the eastern part of Reynoldsburg -- meet the standard less than half the time.

The National Fire Protection Association wants departments to get to a fire within six minutes 90 percent of the time. Only two of 84 departments in the region -- Grandview Heights and Lancaster -- met that standard, according to a Dispatch analysis of more than 14,000 runs to building fires between 2003 and 2007.

The six-minute standard allows one minute for dispatchers to handle the call, one minute for four firefighters to get out the door and four minutes to travel to the fire. Not included in the six minutes is the time the fire has been burning before the call.

"The fire-growth curve shows that, beyond eight minutes, it's beyond the room of origin," said Carl Peterson, assistant director of the association's public fire protection division. People are eight times as likely to die in a building fire after eight minutes, he said, and "dollar loss jumps from $3,200 per fire to $22,000."

Prairie Township firefighters took nine minutes, 31 seconds to arrive at a fire that killed 10 people at the Lincoln Park West apartments on Sept. 12, 2004. The first cell call to 911 went to the wrong dispatchers, and it took two minutes to sort out. Then, because of other fires, the nearest firefighters were 2 miles -- and seven-and-a-half minutes -- away. No one was saved that night.

Contrast that with a fire on April 13, 2003, at a three-story rooming house near Ohio State University. Columbus firefighters were there within two minutes of the alarm.

As many as 20 people were inside, said Doug Smith, a Columbus battalion chief who was there. Most got out on their own, but five died. Firefighters made it in time to rescue three people, he said.

Both Prairie Township and Columbus come close to meeting the association's standard for fire response: Columbus made it to building fires within six minutes nearly 89 percent of the time, and Prairie Township made it 85 percent of the time, according to an analysis of the departments' reports to the Ohio fire marshal's office for the last five years.

But of 84 departments in the region, 49 make it to building fires within six minutes less than half the time.

The NFPA acknowledges that rural, volunteer fire departments take more time. It gives those in the most sparsely populated areas 10 to 14 minutes to get to a fire. But that's little comfort if it's your house that's burning.

The big slowdowns
Several factors slow down fire response, central Ohio chiefs agree. They include:

• Distance. Grandview Heights' compact 1.4 square miles means the fire department can make it to most calls in the city in about three minutes, said Fire Chief Hank Kaufman. West Licking Fire Chief Jim Weber, whose district sprawls over 109 square miles and includes the Licking County portions of Reynoldsburg, said it's unfair to compare his department's median response time of seven minutes to the six-minute standard.

"The cost would be astronomical to do what they think you ought to do," Weber said.

• Staffing. If the closest station is busy, response times climb. When lightning hit the Baran family's home in Hilliard on the morning of the first day of school in 2003, the nearest Norwich Township fire company was already at another lightning fire. It was 10 minutes after Bob Baran called 911 on his cell phone to report smoke that the first fire engine arrived. The family got out safely. The house was destroyed.

• Road conditions . Firefighters battle the same traffic problems you do: Congestion, weather and roadwork all slow them down.

"Everybody wants to push, run to the trucks, drive faster," Prairie Chief Stephen Feustel said. "The third-leading cause of firefighter deaths is traffic accidents."

All departments slow down for both red and green lights to avoid accidents.

"A ladder truck weighs 28 tons with a 100-foot platform," Jackson Township Chief Gilbert Sheets said. "You take a Ferrari, you can get to Orders Road pretty fast. You take a 28-ton truck "

• Cell - phone calls . The tower that picks up your phone's signal may be near, but it doesn't tell the dispatcher where to find you, Upper Arlington Fire Division spokesman Dan Kochensparger said.

"We've heard of 911 calls going to the sheriff's department or Columbus," which is what happened in the Lincoln Park West fire.

The Federal Communications Commission has required that all wireless carriers be able to pinpoint your location for the 911 dispatchers, but there are plenty of exceptions, Kochensparger said.

A national problem
Experts say these are nationwide problems.

"Fire protection in America is myth," said Vincent Dunn, a retired New York City deputy fire chief and the author of four books on fire safety. "The response times outside the center cities are too great, and the personnel responding inside and outside the center cities are too few."

When cities were developing a century ago, they tried to build firehouses within 1.5 miles of most homes. That standard figured it would take five minutes for a horse-drawn wagon to arrive. In rural areas, the firehouse was built where the most volunteers could gather.

As cities grow outward, challenges mount. Since the 1970s, Franklin County departments on the edge of I-270 have evolved from volunteer units into full-time professional outfits.

Upgrading fire and emergency services is important but costly, said professor Hazel Morrow-Jones of Ohio State University, who specializes in city planning.

"We are reluctant to hold up development until we have the extra fire station, or extra vehicle or extra personnel. What we have done in central Ohio is we have outgrown our capacity to provide the services," she said.

Violet Township is one of the fastest-growing areas in central Ohio. Its fire department covers Pickerington and the surrounding township, which has grown to 35,000 people today from 15,000 in the 1980s.

It hired its first full-time firefighter, Chief Kenn Taylor, in 1986. In 1987, his budget was $400,000. In 2007, that budget had grown to $5.4 million, Violet Township had 39 full-time firefighters and they handled more than six times as many calls for fires, rescues and medic runs, the chief said.

State records show that the department reached building fires within six minutes 40 percent of the time from 1987 through 1991. Amid the growth, from 2003 to 2007, the rate was nearly the same: 38 percent.

Taylor realized that congestion on Rt. 256 was blocking his firefighters and paramedics. So he brokered a $2,000-a-month deal to put a small station behind an electronics store at Rt. 256 and I-70. It's designed to cut response times, and it's a lot cheaper than a new firehouse, he said.

Other chiefs are feeling the same pressure.

"People move out of Columbus to live in a rural setting but they still want the services of the city," said Terry Gill, chief in Bloom Township in Fairfield County, which became a full-time department in 1991.

Those moving out might not realize that their fire department's performance can affect their insurance rates.

The Insurance Services Office assigns areas "public protection" ratings of 1 to 10, with 1 being the best. Half of the score is based on fire-alarm response concentrating on departments' equipment and personnel. Forty percent is based on hydrants and their condition. Ten percent is based on fire-alarm and communication systems.

In central Ohio, for example, Washington Township and Lancaster score among the best at 2. Upper Arlington, Violet Township and Mifflin Township are at 3. Worthington is a 4. Some areas covered by Norwich Township firefighters in Brown Township, and by Plain Township firefighters, who serve New Albany, have fire ratings of 8 and 9 because they lack hydrants.

Costly solutions
The most expensive ways to reduce response times are building more firehouses and hiring more firefighters. Many departments outside of I-270 have built firehouses or plan to build more soon.

"If we had five firehouses, response time would be great," said former Truro Township Fire Chief James Sharps, who opened a second firehouse in 2007.

Columbus needs more stations, too, said Battalion Chief Smith. The Fire Division has good overall response times with its current 32 stations, he said. Over the past five years, the newspaper's analysis shows, the division reached a majority of building fires in four minutes or less.

Still, it is stretched on the Northwest Side in the Cosgray Road area; on the Northeast Side near Central College Road; and on the Far East Side near Waggoner Road, Smith said.

"There are some areas we could not reach within six minutes," he said. "We have those three areas right now in need of stations but, due to budget constraints, they've been put on hold."

Each station would cost about $4 million to build and about $3 million in annual salaries and benefits to staff with three officers and 25 firefighters, Smith said.

Liberty Township Chief John Bernans has 19 years of experience in rapidly growing southern Delaware County, where the population -- mostly in Powell -- has grown to more than 15,000 from 3,400. The department's five-year master plan includes a third station.

"We're urban," he said. "We're not that rural anymore."

Some central Ohio departments are banding together to share dispatching operations, which they say saves money and speeds response.

In 2003, Mifflin, Plain and Jefferson townships obtained a $700,000 federal grant that helped launch the Metropolitan Emergency Communications Center, said Mifflin Chief Jim DeConnick.

Since then, Truro and Violet townships and Whitehall have joined, providing coverage for 125,000 people. Departments save money, and response time has improved, especially when departments dispatch crews to help one another, said Crystal Dickerson, assistant Jefferson Township fire chief.

Taking that one step further, Gill, the fire chief in Fairfield County's Bloom Township, said that the county's fire departments -- outside of Lancaster and Violet Township -- should combine.

Others have turned to technology.

To improve response time, Violet Township's Taylor has equipped engines and ambulances with devices that turn the traffic lights green. Columbus, Lancaster and Upper Arlington also have the technology at some lights, Upper Arlington Fire Chief Mitch Ross said.

"We still come to a rolling stop for green, but it eliminates maneuvering around traffic."

What you can do
Residents can help reduce fire damage, too.

They can install smoke alarms and call as soon as possible. But the ultimate solution would be more in-home sprinkler systems, several central Ohio fire chiefs said.

Sprinkler systems cost from $2,400 to $16,000 in a study of 30 homes, Columbus' Smith said.

The state doesn't require such systems in new homes, said David Vandeyar, spokesman for the National Fire Sprinkler Association, but Maryland, Illinois, California and Arizona have many communities that require them.

"Scottsdale, Ariz., has a 22-year history," he said. "If you build it, you sprinkle it."

The Building Industry Association of Central Ohio opposes mandating sprinklers in homes because of the expense and questions about maintenance and water pressure, said Jim Hilz, the association's executive director. New homes are required to have hardwired smoke detectors in every room.

But fire chiefs say sprinklers save lives.

"They find fire fastest, fight it while the fire department is en route and sometimes extinguish it," said Grandview's Kaufman. "Just flat out, people don't die in sprinkled buildings."

Dispatch interactive producer Victor Black contributed to this story.