Last Updated: 03/03/2005
The Rockbridge Report is produced
under the supervision of the Dept. of Journalism and Mass Communications
at Washington and Lee University.
Reporting supervisors: Prof. Doug Cumming
Local fire departments show differing response times
By Nazo Burgy
Your house is on fire and you call 911. How long do you think it would take your local fire department to get there—five, six, or seven minutes? If you live in Buena Vista the fire department may get there faster than if you live in Lexington.
However, depending on where you live, and what type of fire department, volunteer or career, covers that area, the response times can vary drastically.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) sets a six-minute standard for all career fire departments, meaning the fire fighters are full-time paid employees. The NFPA does realize, though, that perfection is impossible and recommends that the six-minute goal should be achieved 90 percent of the time.
Volunteer departments, on the other hand, are allotted a much longer response time, as most volunteer fire fighters have separate day jobs. If a volunteer fire department is in an urban area, 1,000 or more people per square mile, the department should dispatch 15 people within nine minutes 90 percent of the time. Suburban areas, consisting of 500-1000 people per square mile, should respond to a fire in 10 minutes with 10 fire fighters 80 percent of the time. Rural areas of less than 500 people per square mile should respond with six people in 14 minutes 80 percent of the time.
The Boston Globe recently conducted a study and examined 20,000 fire departments across the country. The newspaper calculated the percentage of “on-time” responses from 1986-2002 based on fires reported to the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS). The NFIRS is a voluntary reporting system, and it is left to the discretion of individual fire departments whether or not to report the fires.
“On-time” was determined by The Globe to be six minutes, although this is the response-time standard for career fire departments only.
In the study, The Globe did not distinguish between volunteer and career fire departments when calculating the percentages of “on-time” responses. The Globe decided to use the six-minute standard for all departments because, The Globe wrote, “communities choose what type of fire department to have, and fire does not burn slower when volunteers are coming to put it out.”
Rockbridge County has 11 volunteer fire stations encompassing over 600 square miles. Nine out of the 11 stations reported fires to the NFIRS.
Of all the local fire departments in Lexington, Buena Vista, and Rockbridge County, the Buena Vista Fire Department had the best response rate—responding to fires within six minutes 70 percent of the time.
The Buena Vista Fire Department, which covers 96 square miles, is an all-volunteer squad, like all of the stations in Rockbridge County.
The Effinger Volunteer Fire Department, on the other hand, had one of the lowest percentages of on-time responses in all of Virginia, with only three percent.
The Lexington Fire Department on-time response rate was much lower than the NFPA’s goal for full time career fire departments, at 45 percent. According to Fire Chief David Clark, the department covers about 55 square miles, which is larger than most paid departments.
Clark agrees that the response time of the all-volunteer fire department is not always under six minutes, especially when the calls come from the outskirts of the county.
“Our goal is to get out as fast as we can, but with all volunteers not everybody makes it on time,” said Clark. “Today you’ll show in two to three minutes with six people and tomorrow two to three people may show up in 15 minutes.”
One of the biggest problems for the Lexington Fire Department is the sheer lack of willing firefighters.
“Volunteers are dwindling right now and we’re not having any luck recruiting people,” said Clark. “We need young people that are willing and able to fight fires.”
Most of the 42 Lexington volunteer firefighters have day jobs. Clark works 40 plus hours a week at his gas business, and then spends an additional 40 hours a week on his fire chief duties.
“During the day time we have the longest response time because all the young guys are working,” explained Clark.
The Lexington Fire Department also shares mutual aid with other local departments. They include Kerrs Creek to the west, Natural Bridge to the south, Buena Vista to the east and Fairfield to the north.
The Glasgow Volunteer Fire Department fared slightly better than Lexington, responding to fires on-time 47.6 percent of the time. Glasgow covers approximately a five-mile radius.
According to Glasgow Fire Chief Richard Spangler, it takes the firefighters less than five minutes to get on a truck and on the road. However, the response time is determined by how far away the site is.
“I don’t let my guys exceed the speed limit unless they absolutely have to,” said Spangler. “We sure don’t want to run over nobody,” said Spangler.
Natural Bridge and Glasgow also share mutual aid between the hours of 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. Because both fire departments rely solely on volunteers, the firefighters work during the day, and response time is much slower. As a result, when an emergency call is received from either the Natural Bridge or Glasgow districts, both fire stations are dispatched to increase the chances of a faster response time.
The worst “on-time” response in Virginia was by the Orkney Springs Volunteer Fire Department, which responded to fires within six minutes only 1.9 percent of the time.
Several Roanoke City fire stations achieved their six-minute goal 100 percent of the time. Roanoke City, however, is only 42 square miles and has 13 fire stations to cover the city. In addition, all 13 stations are career departments.
Fire Chief James Grigsby of Roanoke City credits the low response time to the “availability of resources and the saturation of fire stations per square mile—one fire station for every 3.5 square miles.”
The National Institute of Standards and Technology found, in the 1970s, that people have about 17 minutes on average after a fire breaks out to escape before being overcome by heat and smoke. Recently, however, the estimate is down to three minutes.
Not only does wasted time cost lives, but every minute gone is tens of thousands of dollars lost. The Globe found that when firefighters arrive at the scene in three minutes or less, there is only about $27,000 worth of damages on average; in five minutes, $34,000; in seven minutes $41,000; in nine minutes or later $61,000.
The six-minute guideline is also the standard for ambulance calls, as that is the time before a heart attack causes brain damage.
The Lexington police department has a response time goal of three-to-four minutes. According to Police Chief Bruce Beard, in extreme emergencies, the officers do try to get there as fast as possible, “but always keeping safety first.” Beard added that the Lexington police department is fortunate because of the small jurisdiction of 2.8 square miles.
The county funds all of the local fire departments in the county, as well as in Lexington and Buena Vista.
The Lexington Fire department receives nearly $75,000, Buena Vista receives $39,664 and the county departments each receive $44,954 to cover the fixed costs. The fire departments also receive more money based on the number of calls they respond to per year.
Rockbridge County Administrator Don Austin declined to comment on the quality of local fire departments.
As far as insurance companies are concerned, the average response time is not a factor when determining fire insurance rates for homes. Rates are determined by a number of different factors, and each insurance company determines the rates a different way.
Some insurance companies use a “Protection Class Code,” which refers to location of the volunteer fire department within any given area of the county. The Protection Class Codes range from 1-10, one being the best and 10 the worst. Houses in Lexington and Buena Vista range from five to nine while all houses in Effinger are considered a nine.
According to Mac Felts, a State Farm insurance representative, the difference in the rate of insurance between houses rated a five and those rated a nine could be as much as 30 percent.
The Protection Class Code also factors in the rating of fire departments as determined by the Insurance Services Office (ISO). The ISO determines their Public Protection Classification by evaluating fire alarm and communication systems of a community, the local fire department and the water supply. The assessment of the fire department is determined by resources such as engine and ladder companies, equipment, pumping capacity and training. The average response time is not factored.
Photo by Lisa Baratta