INTERACTIVE: Fargo's fire response times differ greatly by area
FARGO - After getting eight slumbering family members and his dog, Thor, out of his house as it filled with fire and smoke, Scott King called 911, ran to his neighbor's yard and watched flames swallow his home for 9½ minutes.
"I could hear the sirens coming," King said. "I remember thinking: 'Just get here. Get here.' "
The wait felt like an eternity then, but King doesn't blame the Fire Department for not making it quicker to the fire that destroyed his south Fargo home that July morning in 2008. But had he lived closer to the heart of town, firefighters likely would have arrived sooner.
The Forum analyzed six years of the Fargo Fire Department's emergency runs dating back to 2008 - more than 22,000 calls ranging from building and brush fires to medical emergencies and false alarms - and found that response times vary greatly across town, with the longest average wait times on the city's southern fringes.
In Fargo's southeast end - where King lives - the delays can be double or more what most other residents can expect.
The Forum also found the Fire Department has consistently fallen short of a national standard that firefighters make it to nearly all fires within 5 minutes and 20 seconds of being dispatched.
Fargo Fire Department officials acknowledge they haven't met that standard, which they say very few departments in the U.S. maintain - a point echoed by several national fire safety experts. Chief Steve Dirksen and his staff stress they exceed their own, slightly longer metrics tailored to the size, shape and risks of Fargo and approved by their accrediting agency.
It's a never-ending challenge for Fargo's firefighters to respond to fires and emergencies quicker - especially as the city has sprawled. The department plans to add another fire station south of 52nd Avenue South sometime in the next two to four years to address longer delays, Dirksen said.
As the city has grown, so has the Fargo Fire Department's workload.
Fargo firefighters handled nearly 7,000 calls for service last year, up 63 percent from 2008. In that period, the department has added staff and built its seventh fire station.
Through that growth, the department's citywide average response time for all emergent runs - where trucks take off with sirens blaring - has consistently hovered around 4 minutes, according to The Forum's analysis.
Response times are chopped into several different pieces: The period between when dispatchers get the call and alert the proper agency, called call processing time; how long it takes firefighters to get ready and loaded into the truck, called turnout time; and the travel time from the station to the scene of the emergency.
Moorhead's Fire Department codes its database differently than Fargo, as does West Fargo's volunteer department, so The Forum did not include responses from those departments in this story. The Forum will follow up to examine the metro's other fire departments in the near future.
But why measure those times in the first place?
Because it allows fire departments to find their strengths and weaknesses, and making it to a fire or medical emergency quickly is crucial to saving lives.
Responders have about a five-minute window before brain damage sets in, according to medical research. And a fire will generally flashover inside a room within 8 to 10 minutes of ignition.
"When flashover occurs, the room just explodes into fire. It's highly unlikely anyone in that space will survive," said Ken Willette, division manager of public fire protection at the National Fire Protection Association.
That's why the NFPA promotes national standards for response times. Firefighters should load up within 80 seconds and travel to the scene within 4 minutes on 90 percent of its calls. All told, professional fire departments like Fargo's have a 5 minute, 20 second window from dispatch to arrival.
The Fargo Fire Department hasn't hit that 90 percent standard at least since 2008, according to The Forum's analysis. In 2013 - the latest year for which data is complete -the Fargo Fire Department missed the mark with more than 11 percent of its fire responses.
"We may be falling short of that goal, but Fargo consistently is a very fire-safe city," Dirksen said. He pointed to his department's track record of limiting damage and fatalities in fires - both well below averages for departments in similarly sized cities, he said.
Mark Light, chief executive officer with the International Association of Fire Chiefs, said Fargo's department is not alone. Those standards generally represent best practices for firefighters - not strict requirements, he said.
"There's no simple formula for anyone to plug in and say, 'This is the ideal response time for each place,' " Light said.
And the NFPA "ultimately defers to the local community to determine what's appropriate for them," Willette said.
Dirksen and his staff say they've done just that.
The Fargo Fire Department's standards require that firefighters arrive on scene within 8 minutes, 12 seconds of being dispatched on 90 percent of its calls - a baseline approved by its accrediting agency, the Commission on Fire Accreditation International.
The department received accreditation in 2010. It has exceeded the 8 minute, 12-second baseline every year since 2009.
Problems on south end
But the city's growing south end remains problematic. The department opened a fire station in Osgood in 2010, but longer response times have persisted as the city sprawls farther south.
Adding stations is a balancing act of existing stations, call volume and risk in the area, said Assistant Chief Gary Lorenz. Are there high-density apartment buildings that make the risk of fire spreading greater? Or sprinkler systems installed that reduce risk?
There's no magic number, Lorenz said.
"Could we provide better coverage with 10 stations? Or 14 stations? Sure," he said. "At what call volume or what risks is it worth the taxpayer dollars to build infrastructure to provide that level of coverage for the whole city?"
Willette said that's a question each fire department needs to pose to its residents: Where response times lag, is it worth the cost to address the gap?
The Fargo department has decided it's nearing that point south of 40th Avenue South. Leaders are trying to identify land for a new station in hopes of including a proposal in their budget request to the city for 2015.
For King, there's no question: The more fire stations, the better.
Six years, a $400,000 insurance claim and one new house later, King still gets emotional about the fire. And the crying kids that morning. And the burned mementos. And his neighbors rallying around his family to help.
"Why wouldn't somebody want something closer to their house?" he asked incredulously. "Who would argue about that? I'd gladly pay more on my monthly tax bill."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Kyle Potter at (701) 241-5502