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Fire alarm

THE HIGH public regard for firefighters is not always reflected in municipal budgets, especially in areas outside the big cities. The result is escalating response times to fires and medical emergencies, a dangerous condition uncovered by Globe correspondent Bill Dedman in a startling two-part series that concludes today.

Only 58 percent of full-time fire departments in the United States meet the National Fire Protection Association's recommended response time: six minutes from alert to arrival. In Massachusetts, two-thirds of full-time fire departments make the grade. But performance ratings have been sliding, along with personnel levels, since the mid-1980s. And departments that depend largely on volunteers generally fare worse.

From 1986 to 2002, more than 4,000 people died in fires with response times greater than six minutes. Unique factors, such as the mobility of residents, make it difficult to establish precise relations between response time and probability of death. But the potential for saving lives can be gleaned from data on property damage. Roughly $1 billion annually in house fire damages could have been averted if firefighters had responded within the six-minute window, according to the report.

Some municipal managers and residents fear the certainty of property-tax increases more than they do the possibility of deadly blazes. A mother and her two young daughters perished in a 2001 house fire in Ipswich. Only three firefighters were covering the town of 33 square miles. A consultant had warned of understaffing, but nothing was done before the tragedy -- and nothing has been done since.

Wealthy communities with high standards for schools, libraries, roads, police, and municipal finance show an unhealthy tolerance for substandard fire service. Voluntary boards oversee practically every municipal function in Massachusetts towns, but not the fire department. The result is a dearth of debate and public policy analysis. Town managers and selectmen would do well to appoint committees to study local response time rates, staffing levels, fire losses, and other factors needed to arrive at rational decisions on firefighting service.

The home-rule mentality that permeates Massachusetts contributes to the problem. Residents need to be confident that the nearest apparatus will respond to an emergency, regardless of the name of the town emblazoned on the truck. Today, such regional efforts differ greatly by area. The Legislature must also support longstanding efforts by the state fire marshal to create statewide mandatory training standards for firefighters and inspectors.

Firefighters appreciate public respect. But that alone can't keep the engines running. 

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