Los Angeles opens up about fire response times

Wed, 2014-11-05 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

Efforts to reform the Los Angeles fire department have been anything but easy. As the city reiterates its pledge to improve response times, it’s becoming more transparent than ever about how well it is – or isn’t – performing.

The city has launched a new fire department performance website that gives the public an in-depth view of response times. The site provides monthly and annual response times for each station, as well as the department as a whole.

The response times are further divided into the amount of time it takes responders to leave the station as opposed to driving to the incident. The public can also see how much those times vary based on whether or not emergency medical services are dispatched.

Regaining the public’s trust
At first blush, the data doesn’t appear to help the city’s image. Despite promises over the past few years to cut response times, the first batch of data shows that firefighters are actually slower to arrive than they were a year earlier.

But the detailed data is intended to help rebuild the public’s trust in the department. In 2012, the fire department admitted to fudging the way response times were calculated, making the department appear faster than it really was. By opening up so much detailed data, the department hopes the public will see that these numbers are real.

Knowing what to fix
The detailed data also helps the department find and concentrate on fixing the biggest issues. For example, while response times climbed over the past year, all of that increase came from firefighters spending more time on the road. The time it took to answer the call and pull out of the fire station was unchanged.

That revelation has opened new discussions between the city and the firefighters who complain they’re simply too far away from some areas. They point out they can only go so fast on roads that twist and turn. In part based on the new data, the city is talking about adjusting where some firefighters and equipment are based, possibly pre-positioning them closer to distant areas where there are a lot of calls.

Setting a benchmark
Los Angeles now joins several other cities, including New York and Seattle, that provide detailed fire response information on a monthly basis. Others, such as London, prepare comprehensive annual reports.

The effort to become more transparent comes as a new smart city standard provides indicators for measuring emergency response performance. For Los Angeles, though, its immediate concern is trimming response times by 10 seconds, and it says its citizens will be able to see it do that.

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