As fire and medical response times slow, city leaders discuss adding another station
photo by: Nick Krug
The time it takes fire and medical personnel to arrive at an emergency has been increasing, with responses to medical calls measuring well more than nine minutes.
Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical response times have generally been getting slower over the past decade, with some response times not meeting department benchmarks, according to the department’s 2018 accreditation report, which department officials presented at the City Commission’s meeting Tuesday.
Division Chief Tom Fagan told commissioners that though some response aspects, such as turnout, which is how long it takes first responders to get out of the station, have gotten faster, the total response time — which includes the emergency dispatch call, turnout and travel time — are slowing down.
“You’ll see that there’s some areas where we have improved,” Fagan said. “Several factors, we believe, are influencing our ability to provide, moving (response times) further and further from the benchmark.”
For 2017, the time it took the first unit to arrive at a fire in Lawrence was 8 minutes and 58 seconds and 14 minutes and 21 seconds for all units to arrive. For medical calls, which the department handles for all of Douglas County, the first unit response time for Lawrence, Eudora and Baldwin City was 9 minutes and 39 seconds and 10 minutes and 30 seconds for all units. From 2008 to 2017, the first unit response time increased 41 seconds for fire calls and 1 minute and 40 seconds for medical calls, according to data from annual department reports. The time for all units to respond increased about 4 minutes for fire calls and about 2 minutes for medical calls over that same time period. In accordance with national standards, the department’s response time quality is evaluated using the 90th percentile of response times.
Fagan said that some response times are no longer meeting benchmarks the department set based on National Fire Protection Association standards and internal studies. Fagan noted an improvement in response times for medical calls in 2017 was due to the addition of an ambulance in Eudora.
Fagan noted several potential factors at play, including development on the edges of Lawrence, farther from the five existing Fire Medical stations. Fagan also spoke about increasing call volumes. From 2006 to 2017, call volume increased by 40 percent, from about 9,000 calls per year to about 13,000.
Though the report found that services are “consistent and reliable within the entire response area,” it also provided various recommendations for the department, including several related to response times. Those include a staffing review of the prevention division and continued work with the Douglas County emergency dispatch center to speed up call handling. Another recommendation was that the department continue its efforts to add a station in the northwest area of the city.
Interim Fire Chief Shaun Coffey told the commission that a fire station for the northwest area of the city is in the department’s capital improvement plan for 2023, but it is unfunded at this point.
Fagan said the station would improve slow response times in northwest Lawrence but also in the city as a whole because whenever any station’s units are tied up, the closest station has to respond to the call.
“Based on the growth in (northwest Lawrence), obviously the sooner that that would happen, we could provide more reliable service not just there but to the rest of the city as well,” Fagan said. “From a planning process, we understand that there’s a lot that goes along with that.”
City Manager Tom Markus noted that another of the recommendations is that the department should evaluate the cooperation agreement between the city of Lawrence and Douglas County for providing ambulance, hazardous materials, technical rescue and emergency communications services. The Douglas County Ambulance Service merged with the Lawrence Fire Department in 1996, and Markus said those funding agreements have not been substantially updated since then and no longer reflect the cost of providing the service. He said he thinks that recommendation is going to be critical to moving forward.
“That revenue could be plowed right back into this operation to do the types of things that you’re asking to be done,” Markus said. “To change how our response times look (and) if in fact we can expand.”
The city, county and school district are scheduled to have their annual joint meeting next month, and Markus said he thinks the conversation with the county about funding for Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical could begin at that time.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly described the fire and medical department’s response time measurements. The department’s response time quality is evaluated using the 90th percentile of response times.