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Where's the Fire? An Analysis of Sacramento Fire Department 911 Responses

Posted on February 25th, 2016 by Staff

The map above shows all the false alarms the Sacramento Fire Department responded to in 2015

The city of Sacramento keeps a record of every phone call that the Sacramento Fire Department responds to. In the last two years, firefighters from the department's 60 stations responded to 14,707 911 calls. We examined the data to find out when and why firefighters are being dispatched in Sacramento.

When Is The Fire Department Busiest?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, calls pick up in the drier, hotter summer months. According to the 911 response data for 2015, July 2nd, 3rd, and 4th are the three busiest days of the entire year. Thanksgiving (November 26th) is another high volume day, most likely due to the increased kitchen usage city - and nationwide.

Sacramento Fire Department 911 Response Volume Per Day 2015

Sacramento fire

The calendar heat map above shows the most active days of the year. Lighter colors (yellow) represent less active days while the darker colors (red) indicate the most active days. Hovering over each square will show you the number of 911 responses made that day.

Where's The Fire?

There is a wide range of situations for which a firefighter must be prepared, and some of those may not necessarily include an actual fire. More often than not, Sacramento firefighters respond to calls that are not fires.

In fact, fires accounted for just 3,788 of the 14,707 calls the SFD responded to.

Over a two-year period, only 25.8 percent of calls responded to by the SFD involved a fire. While this compares very favorably nationally - the National Fire Protection Association estimates that just under 4 percent of calls to U.S. fire departments are fire-related - it's clear that firefighters are doing a lot more than fighting fires.

Furthermore, when the SFD does respond to a fire call, only 1 in 3 involves a building or a structure fire. Overall, less than 10 percent of calls responded to were structure fires.

Types of Fire by Total Number

This is not to say that Sacramento firefighters aren't doing their jobs, it's that their jobs are different than what our preconceived notion is. Firefighters routinely and absolutely risk their lives to serve the community and its residents.

Over a two-year period, the SFD responded to 1,300 structure fires, 1,200 grass fires, 600 vehicle vires, 450 trash/dumpster fire, 150 tree fires, and 50 transformer fires.

Any fire call - whether it be a dumpster fire or blazing building - can pose serious and life-threatening dangers. Even nonfire emergencies have their risks.

Ultimately, firefighters are obligated to respond to the emergency calls that they receive. Which leads us to the real problem - false alarms.

False Alarms Account For 37% of All Calls Responded To

False alarms represented the single largest portion of overall calls to which the Sacramento Fire Department responded, with 5376 over the two-year period. That is 36.5 percent of all emergency responses. Nearly all were due to faulty or malfunctioning smoke detectors, sprinklers, and/or alarm systems at commercial locations. In fact, false alarms at businesses (4240) occurred nearly four times as often as they did at residential locations (1136).

Sacramento Fire Department False Alarm

If nearly 37 percent of emergency response resources are devoted to false alarms, what is the societal cost? It's difficult to measure.

Obviously, the resources devoted to responding to false alarms take away from those that can be directed towards actual emergencies.

This may lead to longer response time and higher than ideal unit hour utilization. In 2015, the SFD average response time was 5 minutes and 14 seconds, just a bit over the accepted national standard of 5 minutes in an urban environment. At the same time, ambulance and fire truck usage sat at .55 - at the high end of utilization range - while a more acceptable average is in the .25 - .35 range. This means that units were in use 55 percent of the available time during the year.

It stands to reason that reducing false alarms could absolutely help bridge the gap and reduce both response time and usage to allow the Sacramento Fire Department to be more prepared to handle any and all real emergencies.

How Much Do False Alarms Cost?

Beyond the impact false alarms may have on emergency response capability, we wanted to know what the monetary cost was. While the SFD does not break down its response and budget data into a cost per call format, a bit of back-of-the-napkin math can help give us a general idea.

The emergency operations budget for the city of Sacramento fire department was $78,947,965 for the 2014/15 fiscal year (July 1 - June 30). During that same period, the department responded to 7,232 calls. Assuming that all answers used an equal percentage of the budget, we get a cost per response of $10,916.

Carrying that calculation over to the complete dataset, we find that it cost $58,684,416 for fighters to respond to all 5367 false alarms over the last two years. Significantly more than the $41,349,808 assigned to fighting real fires.

It's easy to see how these costs can add up. The fire department has to staff appropriately based on the volume of calls they receive and keep a fire suppression force at the ready, whether they are false alarms or not. To this end, the Sacramento Fire Department staffs 24 fire engines, nine ladder trucks, one heavy rescue vehicle, and 169 operational personnel every day.

However, using the overall emergency services budget in the calculation is problematic for several reasons. It includes the cost of building and maintaining fire stations, purchasing and maintaining fire engines and emergency service vehicles, and many other necessities beyond simply responding to calls. And, of course, not all things are equal in life, especially in fighting fires. Fighting a raging building fire is obviously going to cost more than investigating a false alarm.

In order to find a more representative figure, we reached out to the Sacramento Fire Department and asked how much it costs to respond to a false alarm. While the SFD did not reveal any figures, a Virginia Fire Chief estimated that the direct cost of responding to a false alarm is around $600. Using that figure, the direct cost of responding to false alarms in Sacramento over the two-year period was $3,220,200. Again, these calculations were used to get an idea of the overall picture, and they are not hard numbers, but the reality is that false alarms have a significant financial and societal cost.

Preventing False Alarms

Sacramento has seen such a rise in false alarms, which in 2012 it instituted measures to combat the problem, including a series of fines. The city found that if it had the program in place during the previous year, 2011, they would have collected more than $250,000 in fines. The first two false alarms do not incur a fine, but after that, the fines start at $120 for residential and $240 for commercial and go up from there. While this sort of cost recovery helps, it falls significantly short of covering the overall costs of fake alarms.

So what can be done to save the fire department, and the citizens whom they protect, the time money and energy of responding to false alarms? As previously stated, nearly none of these false alarms are due to phony phone calls. They're all as a result of faulty smoke detectors and improper functioning of business and home security systems. The majority of the responsibility lies with the home and business owner to reduce the occurrences of false alarms, and there are numerous ways this can be accomplished.

The first thing you can do is ensure that the smoke or fire alarm is installed and functioning properly. There should be one in every separate room of your house and should be on the ceiling, not near doors or windows. This greatly increases the chances that smoke will be detected and that the fire department will be notified quickly. It's also important to remember that the detectors are sensitive, and their placement near a stove top, space heater, or fluorescent lighting can trigger a false alarm.

The next thing you'd have to do is see that they are maintained properly. Test them every month. Changing the batteries every year is important and even dusting it to remove particles is crucial, as this can affect performance as well. In 2009, 45 percent of false alarms were due to user error, and 32 percent were due to system malfunction. So proper installation and maintenance go a long way towards avoiding those aforementioned fines and protecting the fire department's valuable time and resources.