HFD response time has gotten worse every year since 2012

First unit response time for HFD has inflated to 8:12, 43% longer than 2012

Residents won’t find the information on the city’s publicly facing Houston Fire Department website.

But KPRC 2 Investigates has found that every year since 2012, the overall first-unit response has ballooned by two minutes and 29 seconds.

“We haven’t increased resources. We’ve lost firefighters. The city hasn’t focused on this. The men and women of the Houston Fire Department are at a breaking point,” said Patrick Lancton, the president of Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association.

The information about response times is buried in the city’s annual budgets and is no longer published on the public portion of the city’s website for the Houston Fire Department.

The chief has said he does not believe the metric is a useful or accurate gauge of HFD’s response time.

Houston Fire Department Chief Sam Pena sent the following via email:

“The practice of sending the first unit available just to stop the clock, regardless of the call type, or needs of the incident, is not the best use of our LIMITED resources in a system as busy as ours. I concede there is an issue of perception, but measuring the value of an EMS system based on how fast you drive may be overly simplistic.

On the HFD, 90% of our incidents are Emergency Medical Services (EMS) related calls. Everything else makes up the other 10%, from providing simple assists to other agencies, to false alarms, to major fire incidents.

Regarding our EMS demand, there are certain calls when response time is important, however, only 20% of medical calls get dispatched as Advanced Life Support (ALS) and less than 6% of those emergency medical calls end up requiring ALS interventions. The majority of EMS calls are not related to time-sensitive problems. Over 60% of the medical calls are low acuity incidents, i.e. same level falls without loss of consciousness; feeling sick; unknown emergencies, etc.

In the past, we were dispatching the first unit available to all EMS calls, regardless of the call type or unit type. As an example, we were dispatching Ladder companies to twisted ankle calls. This practice would “stop the clock” for response time, while they waited for the unit that was actually needed to arrive. It was not the right resource for the call, and not an efficient use of resources. Additionally, the initial company was now not available for a more critical call.

The dynamics of the pandemic are also affecting response times. The pandemic has impacted the availability of units caused by delays at the hospitals, extended out of service times for decontamination of units, exposure reporting for our personnel, etc.

We are not abandoning response-time goals entirely. Response times are still a good method of measuring accountability, but we must also look at the evidence-based clinical measures of a system.”

Houston Fire Department Public Information Officer, Alicia Whitehead-Breaux, added the following information one day after the story aired:

“In response to your additional questions for the fire department,

This is the average response time for all units , measured from dispatch (station notification) to arrival on scene in minutes: seconds. It was created from our ImageTrend system which went into place in July of 2018, so the times for 2018 are only a 6 month sample from July 1, 2018-December 31, 2018. This reflects the same way we pulled the times in the prior years, from the previous system, for a true comparison.

2018 (Jul1, 2018-December 31, 2018) > 6.21 Min

2019 > 6.46 Min

2020 > 7.15 Min

Also, your recent story mentioned that the ISO rating took a “hit,” suggesting the rating was downgraded. Our rating is still Class 1 and was not downgraded. Please, see the attached letter from the Texas Department of Insurance designating the Community’s Public Protection Classification as a Class 1.”

Houston Fire Department Chief Sam Pena sent the following via email one day after the story aired. Importantly, it shows that the lesser 1/1X ISO (community fire protection) rating was restored to the highest Class 1 rating in 2020:

“Joel- the TX Dept of Insurance clarified the classification. The classification is 1. Not a split classIfication. Please see attached.”

Houston's Fire Protection rating was restored to the highest classification on 9/1/2020 (none)