Emergency response times two to three times higher in rural areas

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Stacy Vogel
Sunday, July 19, 2009

If you’re having a heart attack in Fulton Township, you might wait twice as long for emergency personnel to reach you than if you lived in the city of Beloit.

If your house is on fire in Avon Township, it could take three times as long for firefighters to arrive than it would in the city of Janesville.

Depending on how far you live from a fire station and what kind of fire service your municipality has, you could wait anywhere from five to 18 minutes on average for emergency fire and medical response, according to a Gazette analysis.

The Gazette analyzed all fire and emergency medical calls to the Rock County Communications Center in 2008. It calculated the average time it takes units to arrive on scene from the time of dispatch.

Urban municipalities served by full-time fire departments showed the shortest average response times. The cities of Beloit and Janesville came in lowest with average response times less than six minutes. Both are served by full-time departments.

Beloit Township, served by a combination of full-time and volunteer firefighters, had the third-shortest time at 6.1 minutes.

Avon Township in the southwest corner of the county had the longest average response time at 18.4 minutes, followed by Lima Township in the northeast corner at 16.5 minutes.

In an emergency, extra minutes could mean the difference between life and death. For example, if your heart stops, brain damage can occur within four to six minutes, according to the American Heart Association.

But municipalities have to balance the desire for speedy response with the realities of rural living and what residents can or will pay for, local fire chiefs said. Though rural residents deal with longer emergency response times, they generally pay less in property taxes for fire service.

“It’s something people just have to realize,” said Loren Lippincott, Milton fire chief. “When they live in a remote area, they’re not going to get as fast a response time.”

The Milton Joint Fire Department serves the city of Milton and Milton Township, with response times of 8.2 minutes and 10.3 minutes, respectively. It is contracted to cover nearby Harmony Township, where the average response time was 10.1 minutes, and portions of Lima and Johnstown townships to the east, where average response times were more than 15 minutes.

The biggest factor is travel time, Lippincott said. There’s little departments can do to get from Point A to Point B faster, he said.

The Janesville Fire Department charges less for service to rural areas than it does in the city of Janesville because of the difference in response time, Chief Larry Grorud said. The department is contracted to cover all or part of Rock, Janesville and La Prairie townships, and residents there pay 68 percent of what city residents pay in taxes for fire service, he said.

In paid-on-call departments, volunteers have to get to the station before a fire engine or ambulance can respond, further driving up response time, said Larry Plumer, president of the Wisconsin State Firefighters Association.

Some departments allow their members to keep equipment in their personal vehicles and drive straight to the scene to cut response times, he said.

The three Rock County departments with the longest average response times—Footville, Evansville and Orfordville—serve large, rural areas in the western half of the county. The bigger the area, the longer it takes both for firefighters to get to the station and emergency vehicles to get to the scene.

The Evansville Fire Department took an average of 10.6 minutes to respond to calls in 2008. It generally takes about five minutes for volunteers to get to the station and five minutes to get to the scene, Chief Mike Halvensleben said.

The department pays members who arrive in time to go to the scene more than those who stay in the station during calls, offering an additional incentive to get to the station right away, he said.

“It gives guys a little more incentive to get out of bed and get to the truck,” he said.

Most rural residents realize when they move to the country that the response won’t be as fast as it is in the city, chiefs said.

“(Response time) is always a concern … but we also realize there’s a personal choice involved, and that choice is up to the citizens,” Grorud said.

Station situation could improve response times

The Janesville Fire Department has slipped in its response times in recent years, but it thinks a relocated fire station could help bring response times down, Chief Larry Grorud said.

National Fire Protection Association standards say full-time departments should reach 90 percent of incidents in four minutes or less.

That only counts the time from when the first vehicle leaves the station to when it arrives on scene.

When the Janesville City Council created a strategic plan for fire service in 1995, it set a goal of responding to fire and medical calls within four minutes 80 percent of the time, Janesville Fire Chief Larry Grorud said. The city thought 90 percent was unrealistic because Janesville is more spread out than other cities, he said.

In 2007, the department reported that ambulances reached their destinations within four minutes 69 percent of the time, and fire engines met the goal 75 percent of the time.

But that doesn’t include the time it takes for the Rock County Communications Center to take the call and responders to get ready to leave the station. The department aims to leave the station 60 to 90 seconds after it’s dispatched by the communications center, Grorud said.

That puts the target at 5˝ minutes from the time a call is dispatched to arrival on scene. Janesville hit that target 56 percent of the time for city calls in 2008, according to the Gazette’s analysis.

The department hopes to relocate Fire Station No. 1 from 303 Milton Ave. to East Racine Street to improve response times, Grorud said. The Milton Avenue site was centrally located when it was built in 1957, but the city has since grown disproportionately to the north and east.

Janesville could need a sixth fire station in the next 10 to 15 years, Grorud said.

The department has applied for a federal grant to relocate the station and expects to hear back in the next few months, he said.

Last updated: 10:54 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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