Saturday, June 06, 2009

Fire Trucks & Fridge Magnets

The Toronto Star reported the results of their investigation this morning in the paper. The investigation took a look at the high response times of Toronto firefighters to fires within the city of Toronto. Of course the City of Toronto officials weren’t that helpful in the investigation. Toronto Fire chief, Bill Stewart, did provide some documentation and some statistical analysis. But when the Star reporter asked a few more questions (i.e. the call time starts in the reports when the dispatcher first saved the call to the computer system, but what is the actual time when the call came in?) Stewart’s reply was “You as a reporter should not be looking at this information.” That obviously smells that something is being covered up for either a purposeful reason (i.e. Toronto Fire has something to hide) or to avoid possible legal issues. The only people to know this reside within the Toronto Fire department. But this isn’t the only worrisome issue.

Further along in the same article the process of dispatching trucks is mentioned. The average response time in North American standards is six minutes from when the call first comes in. The standard breaks down that the 911 dispatcher takes and dispatches the call (1 minute), the firefighters get to their truck and onto the street (1 minute) and the time the truck has to get to the fire or emergency scene (4 minutes). In terms of Toronto’s most recent largest fire, the fire at Sunrise Propane, Toronto fire took way longer than 6 minutes to arrive at the explosive fire scene.

The breakdown of the sequence of events at Toronto Fire during the Sunrise Propane fire scene just boggles the mind. The times provided by the City of Toronto and reported by the The Toronto Star makes a Toronto resident’s heart skip a beat. The first dispatch time recorded by the Toronto Fire dispatcher’s computer is 3:49 A.M. “It took close to two minutes for dispatch to notify and contact fire crews in several stations, all about 2.5 kilometres away.” (Toronto Star Article). At the fire hall it took the crew of Pumper 145 two and half minutes to get onto the road to the fire. Pumper 145 was the first on the scene 10 minutes after the first original call was recorded. Let’s also keep in mind the travel time in Toronto of Pumper 145 wasn’t hampered by traffic on the way to the fire as fire occurred overnight on a Saturday to Sunday when traffic is virtually non-existant. Which the Star reported: ” none of the these vehicles were more than a few minutes’ drive away.”

Perhaps one of the largest issues the Star found is the antiquated dispatch system Toronto Fire uses to dispatch their equipment to emergencies. The equipment is tracked using magnets on a magnetic map of Toronto. Each fire is recorded on the map and then the magnet of a dispatched piece of equipment is moved to it. Apparently this is the system that has been in use since the amalgamation of Toronto in 1998. So basically, Toronto Fire dispatchers keep track of location of their equipment with fridge magnets at all times. Meanwhile over at the the city’s public transit department (TTC) each surface vehicle (e.g. streetcar, bus, etc.) is tracked by GPS units so that transit control knows exactly where each unit is. Surely th Toronto Fire Department can create a dispatch system that uses this already in use GPS technology to track its vehicles, location of fire halls and situations on the go. But there is no promise from the Toronto Star investigation that this is the case.

The City of Toronto needs to wake up and improved it’s dispatching system. The evidence the Toronto Star uncovered may only be the the tip of the iceberg of issues at the fire department. A complete review of the dispatch system first needs to be undertaken. First an audit of the existing system needs to be completed to find the deficiencies. Second a review of other municipal fire systems in North American cities and suburbs should be looked at for best practices that could be included in a new Toronto Fire dispatch system. Finally a plan needs to be put together for a new Toronto dispatch system from when the 911 call comes in to when the first fire truck is on the scene.

But Fire Chief Bill Stewart needs to be told empatically by the Mayor and the citizens of Toronto that this statement will not suffice in terms of this new system (as the Toronto Star reported): “[Bill Stewart] As president of the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association, he is backing a move to change the standard to allow firefighters longer to get out the door to a blaze [by 20 seconds].” This is unacceptable as the current standard is one minute for the firefighters to get to their trucks and out the door. When, as has been espoused to youngsters across Canada over and over by firefighters, ‘in a fire every second counts’ a request of just give them an extra twenty seconds is strictly unacceptable. But then again, if the city of Toronto continues to a five year old’s fridge magnets to track their million dollar pieces of equipment then perhaps it will take firefighters that much longer to get to a fire. What a sad state of affairs it is at Toronto fire when the City’s own transit system has a better dispatch and location program in place than the Toronto fire department does.

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