Any police officer or firefighter knows that we go on a lot of burglar alarms and fire alarms, but that relatively few of those turn out to be actual burglaries or actual fires. Around the country in recent years, cities have worked to reduce the number of false alarms they respond to, and particularly what I call chronic false alarms: places that have many repeats, usually due to faulty equipment or faulty training. I've blogged about these efforts on many occasions in the past.
One of the reasons we have been interested in reducing unnecessary false alarms is to conserve resources, but another important reason (even more so, to me) is safety. Responding to alarms is dangerous. Driving Code 3 (lights and siren) exposes both the responders and the motoring public to heightened risk. A few times every week, I walk by the photos of three Lincoln police officers and at least two firefighters who were killed in traffic crashes during emergency driving. Nationwide, the risk of traffic fatalities is among the biggest threats to police officers and firefighters.
It isn't just the police officers and firefighters who are at heightened risk, either. There has been a lot of concern around the country in recent years about fatal traffic crashes in which emergency vehicles have collided with motorists. I can recall two fatal accidents of this type in Lincoln during my career, although there may we one or more that I'm not recollecting.
Last Wednesday, at Lincoln Fire & Rescue's weekly management staff meeting, our chief officers were discussing this. While this was underway, I used our GIS analytic software, FireView Dashboard, to run a query in our incident data for all calls that were originally dispatched as fire alarms, and the subset that actually turned out to be fires. In the preceding 365 days, we had responded to 1,327 fire alarms. Of those, 16 turned out to be actual fires. Of the actual fires, half were "cooking fires confined to container." Only one of the 16 fires caused any property loss whatsoever, $1,500 damage at a sorority house, when smoke activated a sprinkler head.
On the one hand, any one of those calls originally dispatched as a fire alarm could turn out to be the Real McCoy. On the other hand, we sent a lot of engines and trucks on Code 3 runs knowing that the chances were small:1.2% to be precise. It's a matter of weighing the risk. Is the risk we are trying to mitigate (an incident that has people or property in peril) greater than the risk we are creating by a fire engine and ladder truck running with lights and sirens to the other 98.8%?