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Departing watchdog sounds alarm — again — about CFD response times

Departing Inspector General Joe Ferguson says the Chicago Fire Department still hasn’t implemented changes he first recommended years ago that would allow it to accurately measure emergency response times.

A Chicago Fire Department ladder truck.
A Chicago Fire Department ladder truck. A new report says the department still has not made recommended changes that would help it accurately measure its response time.
Sun-Times file

Eight years after Inspector General Joe Ferguson sounded the first alarm, the Chicago Fire Department still has not implemented the changes necessary to accurately measure response times to fire and medical emergencies.

In 2013, Ferguson concluded the fire department did not meet the National Fire Protection Association’s standards for emergency response times and that its internal reports “lacked the elements necessary to accurately assess” the veracity of CFD’s claims that it was exceeding national standards.

Two years later, Ferguson issued a follow-up report that reached similar conclusions.

On Tuesday, just three days before he ends his 12-year run as city government’s top watchdog, Ferguson released a second comprehensive audit that found the fire department is still falling short.

“It is unfortunate that the issues OIG identified in 2013 and 2015 ... still pose the very same concerns in 2021,” Ferguson was quoted as saying in a press release that accompanied his audit. “Had OIG’s previous recommendations been considered and the necessary operational changes put into place years ago, CFD and the City would be in a better place today, meeting state and national standards and following best practices,”

The audit concluded CFD:

  • Still does not produce annual department-wide reports that would allow it to evaluate emergency response times.
  • Does not measure “turnout and travel time as separate components of response time,’” does not use “industry-standard percentile measures” and has not set goals for turnout or travel time at the “industry standard 90th percentile.”

(Turnout time begins when first responders press a button at the firehouse acknowledging an emergency call was received. The travel time phase begins when they press another button inside their vehicles to show they are en route and ends when the same button is pressed upon arrival at the scene. )

  • Documented its overall EMS response time goal as required by state law, but has not done the same for fire response goals.
  • Still uses data that is “not adequate to allow reliable measurement” of emergency response times.

Only 75.2% of the 937,446 emergency events between Jan. 1, 2018 and Nov. 30, 2020 “included data for all categories necessary to calculate turnout and travel times for the first arriving unit,” the audit states.

The National Fire Protection Association standard for turnout and travel combined for fire emergencies is five minutes and 20 seconds. The NFPA standard for EMS response times is five minutes.

The association recommends that fire departments strive to ensure at least 90% of EMS responses achieve a turnout time of 60 seconds or less and a travel time of 240 seconds or less.

Ferguson recommended that CFD management begin issuing annual reports on emergency response times and “establish and document department-wide turnout, travel and total response time goals at the 90th percentile” for both fire and medical emergencies.

“If CFD management believes the NFPA recommended turnout and travel times are unachievable in Chicago, they should conduct a systematic evaluation of local factors affecting response times and set reasonable goals for turnout, travel and total response times accordingly,” the second audit states.

The report further recommended that CFD “identify, monitor and remedy the cause of gaps in its data” and consider hiring an internal data specialist to improve data quality.

CFD is now led by newly-appointed Fire Commissioner Annette Nance-Holt, the first woman and third African American ever to lead the department, one long known as a bastion of white males.

Chicago Fire Commissioner Annette Nance-Holt addresses new paramedics during their graduation ceremony at Navy Pier on Wednesday morning, Sept. 29, 2021.
Chicago Fire Commissioner Annette Nance-Holt addresses new paramedics during their graduation ceremony at Navy Pier in September.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Under her leadership, Ferguson said he is “encouraged” and hopeful that CFD will confront the longstanding issues with “more urgency” and take “corrective actions.”

That faith was underscored by Holt’s commitment to ask Urban Labs at the University of Chicago to help the department analyze response time performance; hire “additional data analytics staff”; vow to analyze data to identify “causative factors and/or trends and perform a complete and reliable measure of response time by each component piece.”

Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said the department “worked closely” with the inspector general on the audit and “thanks them for the research and findings.”

“We will work with OEMC to improve methods of tracking and reporting response times as part of our continued efforts to respond rapidly and safely to all calls,” Langford wrote in an email to the Sun-Times.

Along with the second audit, Ferguson released a set of online dashboards that document the 1.22 million emergency service events since Jan. 1, 2018 by ward, ZIP code, community area and type of emergency.

It shows the greatest overall number of emergency events recorded and the highest rate of events was in the West Side’s 28th Ward, with 62,902 calls in a ward with 56,045 people. The highest number of emergencies were recorded in three downtown ZIP codes: 60602, 60603, 60604.

The greatest number of overdose and gunshot related events by community area were recorded on the West Side. Community areas on the West and South sides racked up the highest rate of gunshot events per 100,000 people.