Fire departments across the country set benchmarks for how long it takes to respond to fires, car crashes and other incidents to track progress and hold themselves accountable, but King William County Battalion Chief of Administration Laura Nunnally said setting a response time goal for the county’s fire department is not realistic — yet.
Response times for the King William County Fire Department, West Point Volunteer Fire Department and the Mangohick Volunteer Fire Department are logged with the county’s emergency communications center. King William’s five and a half year response time average is about 13 and a half minutes, but between July 2018 and June 2019, that average fell dramatically and the department reported taking an average of about five minutes to respond to an incident.
In July 2018 the department hired six full-time firefighter medics, according to records provided by King William County to the Tidewater Review through a Freedom of Information Act Request.
“Three years ago it was all volunteers, the tracking system was different, we didn’t have 24-hour coverage anywhere. Now at least we have 24-hour coverage here to get us started and that’s going to change everyone’s data,” Nunnally said. “In today’s day and age the first and second call we’re pretty much guaranteed to answer. And that’s going to change our data.”
But the data for all three departments is incomplete and missing key information, such as the time a unit arrived at the scene of an incident, according to records provided to the Tidewater Review.
Of 6,755 calls for service to the departments, 37.2% lacked complete information used to calculate response times, such as the time a unit arrived at an incident. Of 2,891 calls for service for the King William County Fire Department, 1,085 lacked complete information. For Mangohick, 474 calls for service out of 1,099 lacked complete information. For West Point, 954 calls for service out of 2,765 lacked complete information.
The best data KW has
The dispatch records are the best the county has, according to Loretta Collier, the records manager for the King William County Sheriff’s Office and Nunnally. But response times continue to be haphazardly tracked.
In the last five years, the King William County fire department’s average response time was about 13 and a half minutes, according to dispatch data. But the data ranges from response times that took 0 minutes to nearly six hours.
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The data includes all fire department calls and some EMS calls when a fire truck and EMS responded to a scene together. Response time is the amount of time it takes from when a person calls 911 to when the fire department arrives.
The National Fire Protection Agency, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing the losses associated with fire-related disasters, set a guideline of as much as four minutes of travel time to an incident, which starts when a unit is en route, and recommends another 80 seconds between receiving a call and leaving.
Mangohick Volunteer Fire Department, a volunteer department that covers the upper-central county on weekends, responded to calls for service in 22 minutes and 28 seconds on average over the last five and a half years. West Point responded on average in 12 minutes and 55 seconds in the same time period. West Point is a hybrid department with staff and volunteer firefighters. It covers the town of West Point and surrounding areas 24 hours a day.
King William’s response times can fluctuate because of its expansive and rural coverage area, but the response times have fluctuated at a faster rate month to month than in Mangohick or West Point, according to the data.
“Are there average response times in the fire service? Yes, absolutely,” Nunnally said. “If you take me and drop me in the City of Richmond, those firehouses have a district and because they’re in, they have a response time they can hit it in. But (in) a rural EMS, average response time is not as easy to get.”
King William County uses a computer-aided dispatch system to track response times, and while its the best the county has, the data comes with caveats, according to Collier.
There can be human error introduced by firefighters and dispatchers, she said.
Dispatchers call firefighters over the radio to alert them to an incident the firefighters need to respond to and they record the time, according to King William County Sheriff’s Office Emergency Dispatch supervisor Sherry Lipscomb. The time is recorded again when fire units mark that they are en route and again when the firefighters tell dispatchers they’ve arrived on the scene.
The holes in the data result when either firefighters don’t let dispatchers know they’d arrived at an incident, the dispatchers can’t make out the mark-ins due to too much conversation over the radios, or the dispatchers don’t mark the time, Lipscomb said.
In addition to human error, in King William County dead zones can affect whether calls are marked correctly, Nunnally said.
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“You will get to a certain area in this county and they can’t hear us and we can’t hear them. So that will play into it. When it’s a dead area for the radio it’s usually a dead area for the cell phone, too,” Nunnally said.
But if dispatch doesn’t receive a call from a unit en route, they call until they get a response, she said.
The department will continue to evaluate and assess its needs for personnel and equipment, which includes reviewing years of the same dispatch data provided to the Tidewater Review.
But the King William Fire Department’s immediate goal is to respond to all of the emergency calls it receives before it begins to set response time goals, Nunnally said.
“. . .(W)e have to get more paid personnel in place,” Nunnally said. “Because as long as I don’t have personnel that can immediately answer the 911 calls, then we’re never going to be able to get an average (response time goal).”