Major types of fires have their season or, at least, that’s an observation from an Academy special report comparing incident data involving outdoor, structure, and vehicle fires.
The data—collected over an eight-year period (2012–2020) from 30 agencies using the Fire Priority Dispatch System™ (FPDS®)—shows that structure fires outrank both outside and vehicle fires in terms of sheer numbers, although outdoor fires dominate the scene during the drier summer months of North America. That undoubtedly comes at no great surprise, along with data indicating structural fires are in their zenith during the colder months of the North American year (November through March) and a larger percentage occur in homes.
The Academy’s data syncs with a National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) fire report, which states:
- Occurrence–“home structure fires are more common in cooler months when people spend more time inside and in the hours when people are awake in the home. From 2013–2017, 47% of home structure fires and 56% of home structure fire deaths occurred in the five-month span of November through March.”1
- Peak Hours–“reported home fires peaked from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., when many people are coming home from work, are preparing dinner, or are engaged in other household activities.” A higher percentage of people die from home fires, however, between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. even though the eight-hour period accounts for just one-fifth of reported home fires.2 (Academy data shows precisely the same peak hours).
FPDS Protocol 69: Structure Fire is ranked fourth in total call volume, according to the Academy’s data set, following alarms, motor vehicle collisions, and service calls. While not the most common Chief Complaint handled by EFDs, the high death toll and other serious consequences that often result make structure fires one of the most important types of calls EFDs handle. Without the critical information gathered during the 911 call prioritization process, fire units will not be dispatched in the correct response configuration or with complete scene information.3
Using the FPDS, an EFD categorizes each incident by selecting a Chief Complaint Protocol, gathering answers to Key Questions, assigning a Determinant Code using a systematic alpha-numeric coding matrix that defines the dispatch priority level and a specific Determinant Descriptor. The dispatch priority level defines the relative urgency and type of response needed for a given event.
The Structure Fire Chief Complaint Protocol utilizes two of these priority levels (ECHO, DELTA), never categorizing in the lower BRAVO or ALPHA priority levels. The CHARLIE priority level was removed in FPDS v7.0. ECHO-level codes are unique in that fact that they are the most urgent type of call and can only be dispatched from Case Entry as send points to allow EFDs to dispatch these codes as soon as possible. The ECHO Situations Additional Information text was modified in FPDS v7.0 and, among other fire protocols, now includes Protocol 69.
Structure Fire Protocol keeps improving
FPDS versions 6 through 7 made substantive changes to the protocol. Some of these are highlighted in this article.
ECHO-level determinants on Case Entry for REPORTED BUILDING/STRUCTURE FIRE were added to version 6.1. The revision allows an earlier response for all structure fire incidents with a spontaneous report of smoke or flames while also allowing for differentiated responses and resource allocation for ECHO- and DELTA-level incidents.
Protocol 69 contains 10 suffixes. Four suffixes were added, and two of the already existing six suffixes were modified in version 7.0. These added and revised suffixes are: X (Single injured person); Y (Multiple injured persons); A (Appliance, contained); C (Chimney); E (Extinguished fire, 1st/2nd party); and L (Electrical problem). The four existing suffixes remain the same: R (Trapped person(s)); F (Burned food, 1st party); K (LIGHT smoke, 1st party); and O (Odor of smoke).
Case Entry Rule 15, which was added in version 7.0, states, “Key Questions in purple font are Jurisdictionally Approved Questions and are informational. The local Fire Administration/Agency determines whether these questions should be asked.” There are no Jurisdictionally Approved Questions in Protocol 69, however, there are opportunities for fire agencies/administrations to define certain local terms:
- What structure height constitutes a HIGH RISE for their area
- What constitutes a LARGE and SMALL NON-DWELLING Building/Structure for their area
The safety of responders and people on the scene is always the priority, which explains why the protocol often prompts the EFD to provide PDIs and PAIs to callers as soon as possible to help them get to safety or avoid danger.
The wording for PDI-a in Protocol 69—“I’m sending the fire department to help you now. Stay on the line, and I’ll tell you exactly what to do next”—was modified in version 7.0 to “The fire department is being sent. Stay on the line, and I’ll tell you exactly what to do next.” Changing the wording protects the dispatcher. By saying “I’m sending the fire department to help you now” there is an implied promise to the caller that they will arrive soon. The adjusted wording protects the dispatcher from this implied promise while still letting the caller know that the fire department is in the process of being sent and will be on the way.
Any time the caller may still be inside the structure, provide PDI-b, “If it’s safe to do so, leave the building, close the doors behind you, and remain outside,” to help guide him or her to safety. The caller is the only person who can truly determine the safety of his or her situation, which is why this instruction includes the phrase, “If it’s safe to do so.” This PDI includes the Pre-Instruction Qualifier, “(Inside building or Appropriate).”
There are several reasons for the PDI-c instruction, “Do not try to put the fire out.” First, the EFD cannot know exactly how large or small the fire is and therefore cannot know how dangerous it might be for the caller to try to put it out. Second, although the fire may be small enough for the caller to put it out, the EFD should always avoid providing instructions that may lead the caller into danger. Always provide PDI-c if any fire or smoke has been reported.
Many people will attempt to mitigate the fire damage by carrying flaming items out of the building. This is far more likely to spread the fire than to contain it, and it may well injure the person in the process. Providing PDI-d, “Do not carry out anything that is on fire,” can help contain the fire and reduce the potential for injury.
PDI-e, “If it’s safe to do so, activate the alarm as you leave to warn others. Do not use the elevator,” includes a Pre-Instruction Qualifier indicating that it should only be provided when the caller is reporting a fire in a COMMERCIAL or INDUSTRIAL building or in a multi-dwelling structure such as an apartment building.
New PDI-f, “If it’s safe to do so, shut off all sources of outside air, including flues, dampers, and fireplace/stove doors,” serves as a reminder that since air can make the fire worsen, shutting off all air sources will help prevent this from happening. This applies to chimney fires.
New PDI-g is, “Please meet with the first arriving emergency vehicle and inform them if any people or animals are inside the structure.” Providing this instruction to callers helps firefighters know if any people or animals are still in the burning structure so that they know how best to attack the fire.
FPDS v7.0 revised Former Protocol B: Fire and Hazards Rescue, changing the name to Protocol B: Building Evacuation and Health/Life Safety, and adding several new instructions. For example, Panels 1 and 1a give instructions on how to evacuate a building or structure that is on fire. Panels 2–2i provide instructions to 1st party callers trapped in a building fire on how to escape through a window or, if necessary, how to smash a hole in a wall to escape.
In general, an EFD should stay on the line with structure fire callers to provide instructions if it becomes necessary to do so and continue to gather information if the scene or situation changes.
1 Ahrens M. “Home Structure Fires.” NFPA. 2019; October. https://www.nfpa.org//-/media/Files/News-and-Research/Fire-statistics-and-reports/Building-and-life-safety/oshomes.pdf (accessed July 10, 2020).
Note: Estimates [in the NFPA research paper] are projections based on the detailed information collected in the US Fire Administration’s National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) and the National Fire Protection Association’s annual Fire Experience Survey.
2 See note 1.
3 Dornseif J, Gardett MI, Scott G, Toxopeus C, Grassi R, VanDyke A, Robinson D, Wiggins T, Daubert L, Hutchison M, Crook S, Sipple K, Kalmbach L, Clawson JJ, Olola CH. “Call Prioritization Times for structure fires in a Fire Priority Dispatch System.” Annals of Emergency Dispatch & Response. 2016;4(2):25–30. https://aedrjournal.org/call-prioritization-times-for-structure-fires-in-a-fire-priority-dispatch-system/ (accessed July 14, 2020).
Audrey Fraizer is Managing Editor of the Journal of Emergency Dispatch.