About Speed, Risk, And Public Safety In Response Thinking

Mike Thompson

Mike Thompson

Blast From The Past
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As you can tell by the attached article, the debate about the speed of response and the impact it has (or doesn’t have) on various types of incidents has been debated in the public safety community and beyond for decades. I spent almost 30 years with a career service fire department, and during my career I spent a considerable amount of time at the National Fire Academy (NFA) in Emmitsburg, Maryland (USA). One of the many advantages of being educated at that institution is the direct access you gain to a plethora of research literature pertinent to the public safety industry that has been compiled over decades. 

The topic of emergent vs. non-emergent response and its potential effect on incident mitigation is well represented in the literature in the Learning Resource Center at the NFA. If you research the literature on that topic, a couple of things become very clear. First, statistically, the majority of incidents both EMS and fire-related that fire departments respond to can be classified as non-acute or non-emergent.1,2  Clinically and operationally, what this means is that at the time the call is made, there is no immediate threat to health, life, or property.3 In many systems this non-emergent number runs well in excess of 70% of total call volume for both fire and EMS. 

Second, there is not a single published article available in the literature that clearly demonstrates that emergent response changes even a significant percentage of outcomes, either for fire or EMS, or even saves significant time.

Fire department response is very typically accomplished in a piece of fire apparatus. Fire apparatus by design lean toward being big and heavy, and they don’t stop in a very short distance and they don’t handle or corner very well. When a piece of fire apparatus is moving at speed, it amounts to a tremendous amount of stored kinetic energy and will cause a lot of damage inside and outside if it strikes something.

Those things being true, an emergent response in a piece of fire apparatus really needs to be carefully considered based on risk vs. benefit. In a small number of cases, the risk is worth the benefit, but in the greatest percentage of cases, the data indicates it is not.4 One data point frequently overlooked in this debate when assessing the emergent response risk is the direct risk to fire department members. In most years, emergency vehicle crashes are the second-leading cause of firefighter line-of-duty deaths. Our own version of “friendly fire.”5

In spite of the data, many fire departments—even today—respond to ALL calls for service emergently. If you ask them why, you will tend to get one of these answers: They “feel” there may be some benefit, “the public expects it,” or they may “save even one life” by doing it. Research strongly indicates otherwise; the data indicates only increased risk both for the fire department and the public in that community when that type of practice exists.

As generational change in the industry occurs, fire service leaders are, in increasing numbers, realizing that based on hard data and personal experiences, blanket emergent response practice is not managerially or operationally in their best interests or the best interests of the communities they serve.6 




1.  Fey C. Balancing Risk and Public Expectations. West Metro Fire Protection District, NFA Executive Fire Officer Program; December 2009.

2.  O’Neal J. Risk and Liability for Emergency Responders. Portsmouth Fire, NFA Executive Fire Officer Program; July 1998.

3.  Persse D. Background and Advantages of a Tiered Response Model in a Fire-Based EMS Model. Baylor College of Medicine; Jan. 2015.

4.  Kupas DF, Zavadsky M, Burton B, Baird S, Clawson JJ, et al. Joint Statement on Lights and Siren Vehicle Operations on EMS Responses; Prehosp Emerg Care. 2022 May-Jun;26(3):459-461 and Annals of Emergency Dispatch & Response. 2022; 10(1):21-23.

5.  US Fire Administration. Annual Report on Firefighter Fatalities in the US; April 2020.

6.  International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), USFA, NIOSH. IAFC Model Policies on Vehicle Response Safety; September 23, 2021.