Canadian Consulting Engineer

Emergency Response

Planning for emergency services involves the allocation of infrastructure such as stations, as well as the deployment of apparatus and personnel.

May 1, 2007   By Jim Gough, P.Eng. Marshall Macklin Monaghan

Planning for emergency services involves the allocation of infrastructure such as stations, as well as the deployment of apparatus and personnel.

This emerging field of practice is of increasing importance to municipalities. The level of fire protection services provided in a community has a substantial impact on municipal budgets, in terms of capital and operating costs, as well as insurance costs.

Lying somewhere between planning and engineering, the practice of emergency services planning has historically been based primarily on the personal knowledge and experience of those working in the field i.e. fire-fighters and emergency medical services (EMS) personnel. Having worked their way up through the ranks in quasi-military organizations, fire and EMS chiefs have largely based planning decisions on their hands-on experience, with limited input from others.

There are several explanations for this historical regime. One reason is that there is less of a formal legislative framework for emergency services than for planning other municipal infrastructure. For example, although there are “standards” for response times, etc., there is no requirement for an environmental assessment for fire or ambulance stations, unlike for roads or sewers.

Emergency services planning is also unusual because it focuses more directly on people and their quality of life in extreme circumstances than do many branches of engineering. The range of needs to be met is wide — from coping with medical emergencies, to suppressing fires in multi-storey buildings, to public education and inspections. There is an increasing overlap between fire-fighting and EMS personnel. In many fire departments, up to 75 per cent of calls are for medical response.

The “science” of assessing what is an adequate level of emergency response is more open to interpretation and debate than a matter such as the need for a certain level of structural support in building engineering, for example. This indeterminate aspect of emergency planning has enabled some municipal councils to defer investing in emergency response infrastructure or staffing.

In the current era of constrained budgets for municipal infrastructure, the lack of structured planning for emergency services may be understandable, but it does not fully address the financial consequences in terms of insurance costs and potential property loss — or the risks to human life.

Increasing population: increasing demand

The ad hoc municipal decisions and frequent deferral of investment in emergency services would likely not matter greatly were it not for the widespread increase in demand. Taking Coquitlam, British Columbia as an example of a typical suburban municipality, figure 1 illustrates its recent growth in fire service calls. Over the past seven years, the number of calls has been increasing at a higher rate than the population growth.

The growth in demand has a direct effect on the ability of emergency service providers to respond in a timely manner. In Coquitlam over the same time period, response times show a distinct upward trend (figure 2). The number of stations and fire fighting companies remained the same.

What contributes to the ongoing growth of incidents requiring fire or EMS response? There are many factors, including an aging population. As well, more segments of the population are involved in high-risk recreational activities such as rock-climbing and mountain biking, and there is increased highway travel. Generally, the number of EMS calls is growing much more rapidly than fire-related calls.

The rapid growth in demand for emergency services is a common trend across Canada. This increased demand and the associated costs are driving municipalities to become aware that emergency services need to be planned in a more systematic way.

Standards for response times

There are standards for how long it should take a fire truck to respond to a fire and for many other aspects of fire service planning. These standards are developed by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), an American organization for fire service personnel and others in the field. The NFPA standards are widely accepted across Canada, though they have no legal status. The NFPA standard for first response is 4.0 minutes travel time, 90% of the time. The Fire Underwriters’ Survey also has a grading system for the adequacy of fire departments, and due to its relationship to the insurance industry, it is often viewed as a greater voice of authority. In Ontario, the Fire Marshal’s office issues its own standards.

For EMS response, provincial governments typically set the time standards, though there is considerable debate in the medical community with respect to the type of calls that should define standards.

GIS and computer simulations help to plot coverage

As in most engineering disciplines, sophisticated computer software has permitted more in-depth analysis for analyzing fire and emergency coverage. Two software platforms are commonly available in municipalities for adapting to this purpose. Even small municipalities typically have a Geographic Information System (GIS), with current and proposed road networks and land use coded into the database. Many larger municipalities also have a computer simulation of the road network developed for analyzing transportation network needs. Only a marginal investment in time is required to calibrate these models to analyze emergency response and replicate the actual travel times and coverage areas. Either platform can be cost-effectively used to analyze the coverage provided by an array of stations. From that, the appropriate locations for pumpers, aerial trucks, ambulances and other vehicles can be defined.

GIS models have the advantage of being able to store a wide range of specific land use parameters. Response times to high-risk facilities such as nursing homes or heavy industrial plants can be analyzed separately if these facilities are coded into the GIS database in order to focus on their specific concerns. With future land use zonings embedded in the GIS, it becomes an ideal tool for assessing alternative locations to cover the entire future development area of a city.

Modelling ambulance (and police) response times brings its own challenges, as most operators optimize their coverage by using an array of standby locations for ambulances and police vehicles as well as static station locations. Many fire, EMS and police services now have tracking tools to locate their vehicles. These tools can be useful for calibrating accurate models for current response times.

Once the existing situation is modeled and understood, a virtually limitless number of future alternatives can be tested easily to determine the number and location of possible additional stations. Figure 3 shows the fire response station coverage for the city of Oshawa, Ontario, based on a 2003 study by Marshall Macklin Monaghan and CGI. In Oshawa, the analysis led to a recommendation for two new stations.

The four-minute first response contours for the existing stations 1 to 4 in the south are the solid lines colour-coded by station. Gap areas are shown in beige. The eight-minute response contours are shown as colour-coded dashed lines. Substantial gap areas existed, particularly in the northern growth areas of the city. There were also areas of overlap, but the statistical analysis of demand from each station over a number of years showed that there was no reserve capacity in the system.

The purple and beige areas to the north show the location of the new Station 5 (now under construction) and Station 6, together with their four-minute first response contours. GIS systems can calculate the amount of spatial coverage provided by each alternative array of stations.

In the future, merging the GIS systems used for real-time emergency dispatch with the analysis methods described above will allow greater analytical capability for “What if?” sce
narios, such as “What if the city closes Bridge X for a year, for reconstruction — Should fire engines and staff be relocated to cope more effectively with potential demands? What are the risks to property and human life associated with different deployment options?”

With these improved analysis tools, emergency planners will be able to provide quantifiable inputs to help municipalities make more informed and cost effective decisions in land use planning.

Jim Gough, P.Eng., FITE is a senior project manager and associate partner with Marshall Macklin Monaghan, Toronto. He specializes in transportation planning and traffic engineering, as well as emergency services planning.

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