By Kevin O’Rourke
Ever growing congestion and increasing development in the county are placing some strain on the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service’s (MCFRS) ability to save lives and property. While response times remain faster than the national standard, the department’s ability to contain structure fires fell slightly, according to its annual performance review.
On July 30, Fire Chief Steve Lohr released the department’s Performance Review for FY13, which ended on June 30, 2014. The report includes statistics such as countywide response times for structure fires, emergency medical service (EMS) response times, and staffing and promotion policies, with details surrounding the department’s community outreach programs.
The county response times were under the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) minimum response times, according to the FY13 Performance Review. Both the MCFRS report and the NFPA break down response times based on population density. However, there are slight differences in the way the areas are distinguished.
Areas with 1,000 or more people per square mile — which covers most of the Germantown area — should have a standard response time of under nine minutes, according to the NFPA. The MCFRS report says that 90 percent of structure fires, in what it defined as “Metropolitan areas”, had response times of eight minutes and 20 seconds. The MCFRS characterizes Germantown as a Metropolitan zone, with more than 3,000 people per square mile. Unfortunately, there are no comparison numbers from previous years.
It is important to remember that the statistics in the report include all of Montgomery County, not just the Germantown area. However, the Germantown Pulse has broken out the numbers that include the Germantown area. Most of the down-county area — Bethesda, Silver Spring, Rockville, and Gaithersburg — also fall into the Metropolitan zone.
Response times are broken in to three sections: 1) the time it takes for someone to detect the fire and call 911, 2) the time it takes a 911 operator to answer and dispatch the fire units, and 3) the travel time from station to fire location.
According to the report, factors that are limiting response times for structure fires include the time it takes to process the call, which is taking longer than the established national standard, as well as increased travel times which are often impacted by weather, traffic or a response route with a number or traffic-calming devices, such as speed bumps.
The report also points out that the Insurance Services Office, Inc., which collects information about municipal fire protection efforts in communities throughout the United States, and is the leading supplier of statistical, actuarial and underwriting information to insurance companies, fire departments, insurance regulators and others, “has recommended 17 additional fire stations in urbanized areas of the Montgomery County,” according to the MCFRS Performance Review.
One area in which MCFRS’ performance decreased year-over-year was the ability for firefighters to contain a structure fire to the room of origin, which is a hallmark of effective firefighting. In FY12, the MCFRS was able to contain a structure fire to the room of origin 80 percent of the time, while in FY13 that number dropped slightly to 78 percent.
Going forward, the department hopes to reduce arrival times for structure fires by improving call-taking and station-alerting systems, as well as lowering the turnout time — or the time it takes fire fighters to don their gear. The department also hopes to reduce travel time through the use of “strategically placed stations/resources, and whenever practicable the use of a response route lacking traffic-calming devices.” The department also hopes to use technology to automatically record when a unit departs its station and arrives at an incident.
In April 2013 Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett announced that the county’s fire service had raised its Public Protection Classification rating by the Insurance Services Office, Inc. (ISO), following a comprehensive audit and evaluation. The increased rating could mean lower insurance rate for property owners in the county. Montgomery County’s rating by the ISO, based on a 2012 audit and evaluation, is class 3 for urban areas (improved from class 4 in the previous classification), and class 6 for rural areas (improved from class 9). The county’s last ISO evaluation occurred in the mid-1970s.
The response times for EMS personnel with Advanced Life Support (ALS) capabilities were better than 10 minutes and 55 seconds 90 percent of the time in Metropolitan areas, such as Germantown. According to NFPA Regulation 1710, for fire departments that provide ALS services, an ALS company should arrive within eight-minutes for 90 percent of incidents.
The Performance Review says, the department has implemented a strategy to use four-person ALS paramedic fire engines; however, the report stated that a “lack of four-person ALS staffing on 30 primary suppression units,” coupled with a lack of peak-demand ALS resources in high call areas added to the high response times for ALS calls. Of course, congestion, weather, and travel times were the greatest contributors to the nearly 11-minute response times.
MCFRS recently participated in an NBC News report on the importance of shaving seconds off of fire and EMS calls. That report said, response times around the country are increasing every year due to increased congestion on roads, the driving public’s lack of attention to emergency vehicles because they are distracted by cellphones, radios, or in-ear speakers, and a lack of education on how to respond when a first responding vehicle is approaching.
The fire department suggests motorists follow the CLEAR rules when they hear an emergency vehicle siren; C - Calmly pull to and as close to the edge the roadway as possible and stop. L – Leave room. Keep intersections clear and never try to follow emergency vehicles. E - Enter into traffic with caution after the emergency vehicle has passed. Remember to use signals. A – Be Aware of your surroundings. Keep radio volume low and check rear view mirrors frequently. R - Remain stopped until the emergency vehicle has passed
. Be mindful that there may be additional emergency vehicles approaching.
When approached by an emergency vehicle — the law says to pull over to the closest parallel edge of the roadway and yield the right of way to the emergency vehicle. When driving and approaching an emergency scene — slow down and move over.
Germantown, with its population of more than 85,000 residents, is served by three main fire stations, Kingsview Station 22 at the corner of Germantown Road and Clopper Road, the Germantown Volunteer Fire Department Station 29 on Air Park Drive across from the AMC movie theater, and Milestone Station 34, which is on the corner of Fredrick Road and Boland Farm Road, near Neelsville Middle School.
Of course, all of these units receive support from stations throughout the county, especially from close neighbors such as, Clarksburg Station 35 and Damascus Volunteer Fire Department Station 13.