Every second counts: Fire depts. struggle with slow response times

Every second counts: Fire depts. struggle with slow response times

PORTLAND, Ore. – When you need help, 9-1-1 is one of those things we just seem to trust. It’s a safety net that reassures us help is just a phone call away if you encounter trouble.

But a KATU analysis of 9-1-1 response time data in Portland and elsewhere shows there are holes in that safety net and things might only be getting worse.

When a house catches fire or when someone suffers a heart attack, time is the enemy. As Salem Fire Department Chief Mike Niblock told us, “seconds really do count.”

For firefighters in Portland, the target response time for emergency calls is five minutes and twenty seconds. That’s similar to the five minutes recommended by the National Fire Protection Agency.

"Response time is a critical factor in fire response,” said Portland Fire & Rescue Chief Erin Janssens.

Janssens said with the types of materials used in modern furnishings, a house fire can double in size every minute. Something called flashover – a spontaneous ignition of super-heated gasses – can occur within 2-4 minutes.

Response time is equally critical for medical emergencies. 

“Permanent brain damage begins four to six minutes without oxygen,” explained Janssens. “And when cardiac arrest occurs the outlook to save a life decreases 10 percent for every minute CPR, defibrillation and drug therapy is delayed."

Across the city of Portland, firefighters are right now averaging seven minutes and six seconds to get to a call.

A map from the city shows fire response times in 2010. A few areas in green show where firefighters hit the 5:20 mark, largely close to fire stations. Many areas in red, especially around the edges of the city, represent areas where it takes firefighters an average of eight minutes or more to arrive.

When you compare the 2010 map to data from the next year, you can see how reponse times are getting longer across the city.

When you look at the projected response time data for 2012-2013, there are no neighborhoods where the average meets the 5:20 goal. We plotted that data on an interactive map for the entire city.

Goal – 5:20 or less for 90 percent of calls

After Station 23 in Southeast Portland closed response times in the Brooklyn neighborhood and surrounding areas got worse. Stations in surrounding areas were forced to pick up calls in Station 23’s former territory.

Chief Janssens recently went in front of the Portland City Council to explain the impact of a proposal currently on the table to trim costs – close seven more fire stations around town.

“If we close a station we can expect the area surrounding that station to experience a significant increase in response time,” she said.

More people are moving to Portland, but it’s not getting any easier for firefighters to reach them. Firefighters also face challenges navigating the city.

Consider the Laurelhurst neighborhood with its windy streets and low-hanging trees. The picturesque setting makes it a desirable place to live, but it also means parts of the neighborhood have some of the slowest response times in the city.

The firefighters driving the trucks have to navigate down narrow streets with the tree branches, avoid parked cars and are slowed down by speed bumps.

By 2013, the projected response time map shows no “green” areas in the city, meaning there is nowhere hitting the goal of a 5:20 response time.

Portland firefighters let KATU ride along with them for a day to demonstrate how efficiently they try to get out the door when a call comes in. Despite the difficulties, they train often to shave seconds off their response times and pride themselves on the steps they’ve taken to shorten the aspects of response time that are within their control.


Ride along with Portland firefighters as they navigate traffic and a busy traffic circle while rushing to a motorcycle crash.

The map shows their route starting at Station 9 near SE 39th and Hawthorne. The firefighters took about 4:45 to drive the 2.1 miles. The motorcyclist was not seriously injured.


Closed fire stations slow response times in Salem

Another Oregon community is already questioning its decision last year to shut down fire houses. The fire that killed Vernon and Joan Anderson in their Salem home just last month highlights the importance of response times.

The first engine team to arrive at that fire showed up seven and a half minutes after the 9-1-1 call came in. That's a full three minutes longer than what it would have taken if the nearest station to the Anderson's home - Station 8 - hadn't been closed due to budget cuts.

“I won't say if we got there in four minutes they'd be alive, because that's not the responsible thing to say," said Chief Mike Niblock. "What I would say in general is, the earlier we get there in the fire, the smaller the fire, the more opportunity we have to enter the structure and rescue people.”

Niblock says by the time that first crew got on scene the fire was too hot and too intense for the firefighters to go in. All they could do was mount a defensive attack.

Neighbor Richard Grer can’t help but wonder if the three minutes would have made a difference.

“It sucks I didn’t know that was going on,” he said. “Who knows what would have happened had they been there.”

With two of his stations closed, Nimblock is already seeing a seven percent drop in the calls his firefighters can make it to within his target time of 5:30.

“It’s a shame but that’s the reality,” he said.

Station 11 in West Salem near Nimblock’s own home now sits empty. He doesn’t see it re-opening any time soon.

“We’re still going to come to the call but it’s going to us longer to get there,” Nimblock said. “Time is your enemy.”

What you can do

Firefighters say two things can greatly improve your chances of survival in an emergency: know CPR and have fire extinguishers in your home.

Several organizations offer CPR classes. The American Red Cross has a tool on its website to help you find CPR classes in your town.

The Portland Fire Bureau hasn’t specified which seven fire stations could close. The idea was proposed as part of the bureau’s budget to meet Mayor Charlie Hales’ request that all city bureaus scale back by ten percent.

It’s still early in that budget process.

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