Tracking HFD response times as they remain slower than national standard

By Joel Eisenbaum - Investigative Reporter, Cathy Tatom - Investigative Producer

HOUSTON - When a house or other building is burning, how long will it take for the Houston Fire Department to arrive?

How long when it’s a medical emergency?

National standard

On average, HFD does not meet the national standard for how long it should take for the first unit to get on scene to a fire or medical emergency.

According to Chief Samuel Pena of the Houston Fire Department: "We're a minute, minute and a half off right now."

Year over year, Pena admits HFD response times have slipped.

Times slipping

Channel 2 Investigates combed through 83,420 HFD emergency dispatch response records for calls to HFD between Oct. 1 and Dec 31, 2018.

We found 1,950 calls where people waited more than 15 minutes for an ambulance to arrive. We found another 292 fire calls where it took HFD 15 or more minutes to respond.

We also calculated and created interactive maps showing the average response times for each fire station's total calls and ambulance calls from January through June of 2018.

Total calls:

Ambulance calls:

"Come on dad, let's go!" Can be heard in video from an October house fire in Kingwood.

A man and his family watched as their Kingwood home burned while waiting for HFD to arrive. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the fire, but dispatch response records showed it took HFD 12 minutes, 46 seconds to arrive after the family's first frantic call for help.

Answering calls taking too long

As Channel 2 Investigates pored over tens of thousands of dispatch records for 2018, one thing became clear: answering many calls is taking longer than it should.

We asked Pena why. He said: "We've always been behind the standard. We've never been able to achieve the standard, but that's always something we strive to achieve."

The industry standard is published by the National Fire Protection Association. It calls for fire engines to respond within five minutes, 20 seconds and ambulances to respond within five minutes flat. Fire engines get an extra 20 seconds to account for the need for firefighters to suit up in fire turnout gear, which isn't required for ambulance crews.

The Houston Fire Department misses the national benchmark by a long shot. Systemwide, its fire trucks and ambulances have a combined average response time of six minutes, seven seconds.

"We're in line with other major fire departments in the state, Dallas and San Antonio. We're competitive in that respect," Pena said.

Fact-checking Pena's comments

We fact-checked that declaration.

Pena had it half right. HFD responds on average two and a half minutes quicker than San Antonio's Fire Department. But, the Dallas Fire Department has beaten HFD's response times every year since 2010. In 2017, DFD response times were 40 seconds faster.

As a Jeep at a business on Richmond Avenue burned to a crisp last fall, it took HFD 17 minutes, 19 seconds to respond. Fire station 60 is two blocks away from where the fire happened. That's just a quarter-mile. But, as the Jeep went up in flames, Station 60's fire truck was already out on another call, so Engine 10, based 5 miles away, responded instead.

"Look, we are deploying. our dispatch system is broken," Pena said. "Right now, everything is high-priority. We respond with lights and sirens to every call no matter how critical it is."

That system of dispatching, Pena said, leads to longer response times systemwide. That's because fire trucks and ambulances are often already on calls when they get another call. It creates a cascading coverage problem Pena said he wants to fix but hasn't so far, and he faces resistance.

HPFFA: 'Seconds matter'

Marty Lancton is president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association.

"Seconds matter. It's not just some saying," Lancton said.

He told Channel 2 Investigates the response issue has less to do with dispatch, and more to do with too few firefighters and not enough reliable front-line equipment.

He cited a 2016 study the city of Houston commissioned that calls for hundreds of more firefighters.

"The City of Houston Fire Department is absolutely in need of more resources," Lancton said.

In the meantime, HFD response times continue to creep up. Pena said that means, "It is moving in the wrong direction."

The National Fire Protection Association has set two standard response times that communities can use as benchmarks for their fire and emergency medical response times.

One, called NFPA 1710, is for metropolitan fire departments like HFD that are staffed by professional firefighters 24-hours a day. The other is NFPA 1720. It has guidelines for fire and ambulance first unit on scene response times for smaller suburban and rural fire departments that may include a mix of professional and volunteer firefighters, or just volunteers.

One important thing to note, both sets of standards are voluntary -- not mandatory.

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