AHJ Perspective: Catch 22

When does fire prevention end and fire suppression begin? The flippant answer is: when someone calls 911 reporting a fire. The fire has occurred. Prevention implies that it wouldn’t happen. But, it did. Now, someone has to go put it out.

And now, the outcome may well be determined by the exact opposite of prevention and that is response. If we compare the amount of resources dedicated to the task of preventing fires to the amount of resources dedicated to fire suppression, one might observe that we don’t have much faith in prevention anyway. Taxpayers don’t pay that much for prevention.

If we consider how much it costs citizens to build fire stations and to adequately staff them, we can actually calculate what costs are associated with fire suppression. What is not considered is how much it costs for citizens to build in the fire protection features we now require. What I’m talking about now is smoke detection, fire sprinklers, exiting, standpipes, different forms of building materials that are fire resistant, etc.

These features, required during plan review, have a price tag. That price tag probably exceeds what an individual occupancy is going to contribute to property tax to support the fire suppression division by a factor of 20 to 1. This sounds contradictory. The smallest element of the department’s staffing budget imposes the greatest requirements for fire protection. And, they must be paid for upfront. The largest element of government’s cost, i.e., the strategically positioned resources to respond when there is an actual ignition, is paid for on the installment plan.

In other columns I have discussed a couple of trends that are emerging from the business community that may have an impact on the fire service of the future relative to these two factors. One trend is that business interests are resisting the expansion of fire agency authority to require new code provisions. Secondarily, there is a trend to want fire departments to become more taxpayer friendly. That can be translated to mean: provide all services in the most cost-effective way possible.

These two trends place a great deal of pressure upon an Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ). The first is to keep up with the workload and to find new ways of meeting the challenge of community growth and development. The second is to have adequate prevention resources to make sure that mitigation is built in up front. This challenge can create gaps whenever current code requirements are not properly utilized or are overlooked in the plan review process. Inadequately staffed prevention bureaus can create a fire problem that will require a lot more maintenance in the future if the AHJ is not careful.

Now, if that’s not bad enough for you, we are seeing the return of the conflagration to the modern urban landscape. In the 1880s-1890s we burned down a lot of business districts. Those losses spawned the insurance movement and the creation of the very codes that the business community is fretting about today.

The last thing that I will toss into the discussion here is the trend of fire departments becoming “all-risk entities” instead of fire departments. That’s just another way of saying that communities are not willing to staff fire stations for a decreasing number of events that are called fires. Responding to low-frequency, high-consequence events doesn’t seem to be good enough for communities now. Fire departments are being tasked with emergency medical services, hazmat, and even other neighborhood-based programs at an ever-increasing rate. These programs are designed to keep the firefighters occupied between calls for fire response. That may well turn out to be a double-edged sword.

Where I’m going with this column is to focus upon a potential nexus of all of these trends, somewhere in the future as it relates to fire prevention. As I have stated in previous articles, this is not a prediction. It is a projection of trends and patterns that, unaltered, can result in a new operational environment for fire agencies. Potentially we are creating a fire problem that is much more complex than in the past and we’re attempting to protect it with a fire force that is increasingly less focused on structural firefighting. The consequence might be that we may have fewer actual ignitions, but more catastrophic fires. When ignition results in a fire spread beyond the basic built-in fire protection features, we are breeding catastrophe.

The fire service takes a lot of pride in the idea that fire stations are distributed evenly in our various communities and they provide an equitable level of service. The inference is that we can get to anyone’s request within a standard travel time. There are two factors involved in this assessment. The first is the fact that the travel time is based on where the fire station is located, not where the fire is located. The second is that the closest fire company may not be as readily available as it was in the past.

I have reviewed thousands of fire reports in my career and have noticed phenomena that require some scrutiny. That is the tendency to develop “average” response time goals and then assume that that looks good statistically. It may not be telling us anything. Average means that 50 percent of the time the travel time is over the time limit and 49 percent of the time it is under the time limit. What is more important is the range of response times.

And lastly, what is the most important element in time studies is often missing from the analysis of events. That factor is the state of the fire upon arrival at the scene. Personally, I have had totally involved structure fires occur within sight of a fire station. So, what is important is not how long it takes for a fire truck to get to the scene, but rather how fast a fire truck is dispatched when ignition actually occurs.

Now let’s take this back to the all-risk approach. What is the probability that when someone has a bad fire, especially in the evening or early morning hours, that the local fire apparatus is going to be involved in a medical aid? Where there are communities that are placing more emphasis on EMS than they are on fire suppression, alarms often result in resources being sent to the scene from much further away. In other words second due companies will not meet the response expectation. Analyses of such anomalies are almost always nonexistent in fire protection management analytical reports.

The nexus of these trends creates the potential loss of credibility issue for the fire service of the future. On the one hand, the cost of fire suppression forces is increasing as a function of inflation and the cost of living in growth. This is in contrast with potential of having fire departments become increasingly ineffective in meeting public expectation.

The implication is that there needs to be some attention paid to keeping fire prevention and fire suppression on a level playing field. Professional fire managers and leaders need to be looking for options to assess the communities’ fire defenses as a combination of building and manual forces. We can ill afford to let the code process allow bigger and bigger structures without proving that we can protect them and keep them from becoming conflagrations when they do catch on fire.

rjcolemanmasterABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ronny J. Coleman is currently the president of Fireforceone. He is a past president of the IAFC and CFAI. Over his lifetime, he has received numerous awards including the AFSA’s 1989 Henry S. Parmelee Award, the 2011 Mason Lankford Award from the Congressional Fire Services Institute, and the Tom Brennan Lifetime Achievement Award from Fire Engineering in 2014. He continues as a contributor to the fire service in many ways.

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