VIDEO: Fire rescue

VIDEO: Fire rescue

Governments’ primary responsibility is to serve and protect its citizens - that includes providing effective and efficient fire rescue services.


Governments’ primary responsibility is to serve and protect its citizens. And that means providing effective and efficient fire suppression and rescue services when incidents occur. Yet, as the urban landscape evolves and cities become more complex and congested, many are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain response times and effectiveness in the face of static (in many cases shrinking) budget allocations.

Defining the service

Fire rescue services are generally provided by Fire Departments to respond to emergency and non-emergency incidents such as structural fires, vehicular accidents, medical assists, rescues and hazardous materials response. For the purposes of this report, the service does not include fire prevention activities or fire safety inspection services.

Topline findings

  • The average city spends US$6,320 per fire rescue incident
  • However, costs range from as low as US$116 to as high as US$14,000 per incident
  • The average city takes just over 8.5 minutes to respond to an incident
  • The vast majority of respondents report fewer than 7 lives lost to fires in the past year.

Benchmarking analysis

Operating and capital costs per fire rescue incident. This measure combines reported operating costs and capital costs for all relevant fire rescue services and divides the total by the number of reported incidents.

Points to consider:

  • When interpreting the graph below, being less costly may not necessarily be desirable. For example, City 3 has the lowest cost at US$116/incident. When we examine the components of cost/output, this raises the question: Does this city actually have more incidents than other cities while the operating and capital costs are the same? If this is the case then this is not a desirable state. Similarly, a city like City 14 where the cost per incident is US$14,000, might suggest that this city’s fire prevention service(s) are effective and incidents have been reduced.
  • One of the surprising discoveries when we reached out to participating cities was that not all countries have transferred the mandate to deliver the fire rescue service to cities. This mandate is covered either by national or state governments in these respective countries. This is a clear example of a service that may be challenging to capture comparable information outside of the current jurisdiction when requesting benchmark data.
  • Fire officials will be quick to point out that the cost per incident is directly related to innumerable categories of incidents that are bundled into the calculation and it is very important to note that if the city in question is a low rise, suburban city, that the costs will be considerably less than those realized by large, densely populated cities with high rise buildings. In addition, some cities may be supported by volunteer fire fighting units which can have a direct impact on service costs. But even with such knowledge in hand, one has to ask the question: Is it better to have a higher cost per incident than a lower cost? This may seem counter intuitive but consider for a moment that a city that has fewer incidents (for whatever reason) will have a higher cost. Is this not the goal? Similarly, if a fire department spends more money on the fire prevention service and thereby reduces the cost of the fire rescue service, isn’t this a more reasonable way to spend the city’s money?
  • A cost comparison for the fire rescue service would be well served if the “response” service is compared with the “prevention” service, thereby providing a more fulsome overview of efficiency. Future studies will explore this question.

Operating and capital cost per fire rescue incident

Operating and capital cost per fire rescue incident


Points to consider:

  • Average response time to fire/rescue incident. This measure reflects the average time to respond to a fire or rescue incident, as reported by respondents.
  • In most cases, response time reflects the time for fire services to arrive at a specific address and does not include the ‘vertical response’ time required for high-rises and office complexes. — Nine cities provided response time to fire rescue incidents. On average response times of 9 minutes are achieved across all cities, with City 29 showing the best response time at 7 minutes and City 21 double that at 14 minutes.
  • Regarding factors that may influence response time, cities that are more congested with streets that are almost impossible to traverse during the day are clearly going to challenge fire departments in their response time. Other factors might include the layout of the city (i.e. narrow and convoluted street layouts present a challenge) and the density of fire stations. One city suggested they were considering building 1–2 person fire stations in the downtown core in order to have someone on the premise sooner and to establish whether the “alarm” was indeed valid or not.
  • Refinements in subsequent studies might include a focus on qualifying the density of the city, understanding how long it takes to respond with the first fire truck, and other effectiveness indicators related to the number of injuries/deaths and/or the amount of property saved from fire damage.
  • Clearly the faster a fire department can respond to an incident the more lives and property can be saved. Focusing on becoming more effective by responding quicker needs to be balanced with more proactive services, such as fire safety inspections and fire prevention education. Fire fighting professionals know this and are trying to find the right balance.

Response time to fire rescue incident (minutes)

Response time to fire rescue incident (minutes)

Persistent problems

  • Responding to rapid rates of new development and urbanization
  • Maintaining response rates as density increases
  • Managing labor costs and resource allocation
  • Sustaining service levels without new investment
  • Leveraging technology to improve efficiency

Common cost factors

  • Labor and benefits
  • Rolling stock and equipment
  • Land and asset amortization
  • Shared services costs

Innovative ideas

  • In Toronto, countdown clocks have been installed in the bays to help crews assess their turnout times and monthly report cards are distributed across the city to encourage healthy competition between crews.
  • The City of Toronto has also used a series of process improvements to reduce their call processing time from 1 minute 23 seconds in 2013 to just 50 seconds in 2016.
  • Fire authorities in Antwerp have improved response times by centralizing dispatching across the city.

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