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Boston area scores well in fire response

Your car is stuck in traffic. Your train is behind schedule. Your plane is delayed.

But take heart, raw-nerved Bostonians: Your fire engines are running on time.

The national gold standard for communities is that they should respond to fires within at least six minutes 90 percent of the time.

Boston trumps that. A Globe review of public records from 1986 through 2002 shows that the Boston Fire Department has arrived at burning buildings within six minutes 97.7 percent of the time.

That's a percentage that many suburbs cannot match.

In fact, throughout eastern Massachusetts from 1999 through 2002, the median on-time rate was 89.3 percent, compared with the Hub's 96.6 percent.

And response times have been worsening nationwide. In 2002, the latest year for which figures are available, only 58 percent of departments with full-time firefighters met that standard -- getting to fires within six minutes 90 percent of the time -- down from 75 percent in 1986.

But the response rate of Boston, in the judgment of some fire-protection professionals interviewed, puts it in the top echelon of departments nationwide.

"I'm glad," said Boston Fire Commissioner Paul Christian, who has held that post since 2001. "We have good, well-trained, reliable firefighters."

Dorchester resident Phil Lindsay said he didn't need a survey to tell him that he was in good hands. Five years ago, he said, he fell off a ladder while fixing his roof and broke his leg. An EMT was in his yard within several minutes. "I don't think I could have found that, out in the suburbs," he said.

Lindsay, 48, should know: He grew up in Norwell, where his father was a volunteer firefighter.

In fiscal year 2003, Norwell spent $145 per person on fire protection; Boston spent $239. In Norwell, fire spending accounts for 5.2 percent of the municipal budget; in Boston it's 7.8 percent. In Norwell, there's an average of one fire station every 7.1 square miles; in Boston, there's one every 1.5 square miles. While Boston surpassed the 90 percent standard from 1986 to 2002, Norwell came in at only 83.5 percent.

Lindsay, who figures he pays less to live in the city than his friends do in suburbia even with higher auto rates here, believes he gets more public-safety bang for his buck in Boston.

"It's a misnomer how dangerous it is in the city," he said. "I've never felt unsafe in Dorchester. Never."

The local scorecard
City Weekly's other communities were also off the charts: Brookline, 98.9 percent; Cambridge, 97.1 percent; Somerville, 99.1 percent. Since 2002, Somerville has taken one engine off the street, according to city officials, who say that response time has not been seriously affected.

Yet public-safety analysts say that as people push out farther from the city, those who yearn for sprawling ranch houses on wide-open suburban acres may be paying for their privacy with fire coverage that's stretched too thinly.

The median for all the communities in Eastern Mass. breaks down like this: one fire station covering every 8.4 square miles; fire departments spending $117 a person annually; and fire-safety making up 5.3 percent of municipal budgets.

Even as some in suburbia were slashing their safety nets, Boston was pumping more money into its Fire Department, increasing its per capita spending by 25.5 percent from 1987 through 2003.

Fire-protection analysts say that it's money well spent in a city known for its three-deckers, where a high concentration of people are living in older wooden buildings that can burn more quickly than many other types of structures.

As they say in the fire-protection industry: "The investment in the level of effort should equal the level of service that meets the level of risk." In other words: the more people at risk, the more you should invest to make sure they're protected.

Money no panacea
Of course, specialists say, spending alone can't ensure speedy fire responses. At $265 and $250, both Wellfleet and Orleans invested more per person in fire safety during fiscal 2003 than did Boston. Yet with fire responses within six minutes a mere 66.7 percent and 69.2 percent of the time, respectively, both flunked the 90 percent test from 1986 through 2002.

Nor do budget cuts automatically translate into slower responses. In Boston, the Fire Department took nearly a $5 million hit in fiscal 2004, but no firehouses were closed, and Christian said response times remain excellent.

Not that Boston hasn't had its own bumpy rides. District 10 covering the sometimes-off-the-beaten-path roadways of West Roxbury and Readville clocked in with six-minute response times of 89.1 percent in 1995, 87.2 percent in 1996, and 83.3 percent in 2001, before rebounding to 98.2 percent in 2002.

Still, Stewart Gary, a fire chief in northern California who develops deployment methodology for the Commission on Fire Accreditation International, said Boston's overall response-time rate indicates a department as deep as the New England Patriots in being able to cover fires in a city with such heavy traffic and narrow streets.

Gary offers another firefighting bromide, this one with a military tone: "Deployment, said simply, has two measures: the speed and the weight of the attack."

Which, he says, means: "If I arrive too slowly, or too thinly staffed, the fire is going to beat me."

The jakes on the job know this. As they enswathe themselves in gear and hop aboard a fire engine, then hurtle toward a blaze, they say, their inner alarm clocks tell them: Get there. Get there. Get there.

"It's inbred," said Nick DiMarino, a 32-year veteran who now heads Boston Firefighters Local 718. "We do take pride in the fact that our response time is very good."

Tragedy in Southie
Bostonians know how precious are the hands of time. In 2002, firefighters said they arrived near the scene of a fire in South Boston within about four minutes of the first alarm. One hundred feet away from them, flames were flashing through a house on Bowen Street. Inside was Caitlin Orr, 8 years old.

But outside, a fire engine was trying to turn onto Bowen, only to be thwarted by illegally parked cars. By the time firefighters finally tore through and reached Orr, her body was limp. She was later pronounced dead.

Afterward, firefighters said that, as they were stuck on the street, they could almost feel the ethereal moments, at least 30 seconds of them, helplessly slip away.

"That breaks my heart, that little girl," Christian said recently when asked about the incident, and the importance of time. "That's one we should never forget."

Globe correspondent Bill Dedman contributed to this report.

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