Firefighters getting on scene faster

Nanaimo’s firefighters arrive at emergency scenes a little faster each year, but big leaps in future performance will mean building more fire stations, said the city’s fire chief.

Nanaimo Fire Rescue released its 2012 response times last week, which showed a slight improvement over 2011.

For nearly a decade, the fire department worked toward the performance goal to have the first fire truck on an emergency scene within six minutes of an alarm 90 per cent of the time.

In 2012 firefighters achieved that goal 74.15 per cent of the time, an incremental improvement over the 73.27 per cent performance posted for 2011.

Overall performance figures are made up of three primary performance goals for 90 per cent of calls:

- Dispatch performance:  to dispatch a crew within 60 seconds;

- Turnout performance: to have a truck rolling within 60 seconds;

- Travel performance: apparatus travel time limited to four minutes.

Ron Lambert, Nanaimo Fire Rescue chief, credits performance gains to human and technological factors.

“If we go back to 2005 we were down to the 13th percentile (in some performance criteria) and it has improved ever since,” Lambert said.

2008 saw substantial performance gains when the city opened Station No. 4 in Chase River and replaced volunteers with full-time firefighters who respond more quickly to emergencies in Nanaimo’s southern districts and ease the workload on Station No. 1 on Fitzwilliam Street.

But big performance strides between 2005 and 2009, achieved partly through added infrastructure, have dwindled in recent years to incremental gains whittled out from fine tuning human performance and updating technology, said Lambert. Technological response time savers include fire station bay doors that open automatically to an alarm. Instead of stopping to hand write incident and location information, crews grab it from rip-and-run printers, and laptop computers on board trucks update information en route to emergency scenes.

Sooner or later, though, crews run up on physical barriers, some of which can be worked around using deployment strategies.

“If we look at a map of all the response times beyond six minutes, they’re distributed throughout the city, including those areas that are covered by a fire station,” Lambert said. “So that makes you scratch your head and ask, how come?”

Lambert said one reason is that it takes longer to reach some peripheral areas of the city. Another is the availability of a fire truck. If that truck is already on a call, a back-up is called from a second fire station. One way to speed up response time is to pre-position trucks and crews where incidents are likely to happen, such as a particular intersection during rush hour. In 2013 Nanaimo Fire Rescue will begin working with a program called MUM designed to do just that.

“That stands for Move Up Module,” Lambert said. “What that will do, based on historical response data, is suggest that you move an apparatus into an area that is most likely to have an incident occur.”

But deployment strategies with existing resources can only be stretched so far. By 2025 Nanaimo Fire Rescue will likely be responding to 9,000 calls annually and Nanaimo’s geographic layout creates distribution challenges that will worsen as the city continues to grow, population rises and traffic density increases, said Lambert.

“In addition to that, for those (incidents) outside of our current travel distances, to meet the six-minute performance to give you a four-minute travel time, that means more fire stations,” Lambert said. “That’s the only solution there.”

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