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When it comes to many vital public services, including police, fire and EMS, one of the primary – and sometimes the only – performance measurement that people use is response time.

On the surface this makes a lot of sense. For emergency services, particularly, every moment can spell the difference between a minor incident and a tragedy. To the general public, fast response times are real tangible evidence that they are getting good service. Just ask anyone who has waited for an emergency vehicle when a relative or friend might be undergoing a heart attack.

All that said, however, response times are often misunderstood. Sometimes, when they are overemphasized, they can actually lead to emergencies themselves.

It’s our guess that most people who read about response times aren’t aware that they can be measured very differently by first responders. According to Lexipol, which provides information and tech solutions to help public safety organizations, there are three different ways that response times are generally measured.

They are:  


  • “Turnout time – the elapsed time from when a unit is dispatched until that unit changes their status to ‘responding.’”

  • “Call processing time – the elapsed time from the call being received at the (public safety answering point) to the dispatching of the first unit.”

  • “Travel time – the elapsed time from when a unit begins to respond until its arrival on the scene.”

There’s a huge difference between the three – particularly from the point of view of the person who is urgently in need of help. With a shortage of EMS vehicles in many parts of the country, for example, after the 911 call is finished it can take the dispatcher valuable minutes to actually get an ambulance company to respond to the call. Once that happens, the ambulance still needs to arrive at the scene. From the perspective of the person who made the call, the response time might be 23 minutes (from call to help) not eight minutes (for the emergency vehicle to make the trip).

If response times are truly to be used as helpful performance measures, we’d argue, that what really matters is the amount of time it takes from hanging up with 911 until help comes knocking on the door (or kicking it down in extreme instances). Other measures don’t really reflect the customer experience.

Yet another issue with response times is that they don’t take into account the specific situation – and that can jeopardize safety for others, including the responder. If someone thinks they’ve broken an arm, for example, and calls 911 it probably doesn’t matter much if an ambulance arrives in ten minutes or twenty minutes. But if the call is for a fire or a heart attack then every minute counts.

Yet these different scenarios are comingled in publishing response times. And that means that when emergency vehicles are summoned, responders who are being held accountable for their response times are responding to the scene as quickly as is possible – traveling far faster than the speed limit, going through stop signs and so on. No surprise that in 2021 according to the National Safety Council, 198 people “died in crashes involving emergency vehicles. The majority of these deaths were occupants of non-emergency vehicles.”

Our recommendation is that response times, wherever possible, should be disaggregated in such a way as to differentiate between life and death emergencies and those that are far less serious in nature. This would not only make the response time measures more useful – it might save other innocent lives along the way.



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