Author(s): Ken Willette. Published on September 1, 2015.

RECENTLY, SOME FIRE DEPARTMENTS have found themselves under scrutiny by the media and elected officials over the issue of response times. NFPA 1710, Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments, requires specific times for the response of fire and emergency services. While the intent of the Technical Committee was to provide response timelines based on empirical data, the value of that data can get lost when departments are taken to task for their interpretations of those requirements. But the question remains: How fast is fast enough?

NFPA 1710 provides clear requirements for the optimal time it should take for fire apparatus to travel to the scene. In Chapter 3, the term time is broken into eight specific components, including travel time, defined as “the time interval that begins when a unit is en route to the emergency incident and ends when the unit arrives on scene.” Chapter 4 requires that fire departments establish travel-time objectives of 240 seconds or less for the arrival of the first engine company at a fire suppression incident. If that four-minute limit is so clear, why have departments found themselves in the hot seat?

Part of the problem is a lack of transparency on the part of fire officials with the media. Departments have gone on record as unequivocally complying with the travel time provisions of NFPA 1710, when in fact they have modified the required times, often by measuring travel time in a manner not consistent with the standard. Since all NFPA standards can be read online, however, it is easy for reporters to research the criteria in NFPA 1710 and cite specifics when they call fire departments seeking confirmation of full compliance.

Another transparency issue can arise when agencies utilize NFPA 1710 only for budgetary justification or when questioned by the media. The standard requires that departments draft an organizational statement that provides the background information to support any travel time or similar response objective, and that it be updated annually and be made available to the public.

Finally, some fire departments may fail to accept the right extended to the executive authority of the department or community to modify the recommendations of any NFPA standard, unless required by law or regulation, to meet the needs of the community. Modifications to any NFPA document can be considered under the equivalency clause generally found in Chapter 1. NFPA 1710 allows the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) to use the requirements as a foundation for a community-specific program, meaning the AHJ may choose to have travel times in excess of those in NFPA 1710. The caveat is that the public needs to know if the change increases its risk, and if it does, that steps are being taken to address that risk.

How fast is fast enough? That depends, but NFPA 1710 offers valuable tools to help answer the question. Be sure to use the entire standard, including the fire propagation curve found in Annex A as the basis of the four-minute travel time. Draft a fire department organizational statement, be transparent if you modify your travel-time objectives, address any gaps posed by the increased times, and share all of it with the public early and often—not just at budget time.

KEN WILLETTE is division manager for Public Fire Protection at NFPA.