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Who is watching the fire department?

Homebuyers can do their homework when choosing a community for their dream home. It's easy to check the Web for a community's crime rate, tax rate, and school test scores.

But who is monitoring the performance of fire departments?

At the local level, few fire chiefs publicize their response times to fires or medical calls. When they do report times, they usually give an average, but the meaningful measure, specialists say, is the percentage of fires that get a response within the community's target, whether that is four minutes or five or six.

At the state level, fire marshals get incident reports but don't report on-time rates. In Massachusetts, the data collection is one of the best, because state law requires fire departments to report fires. The annual report from the fire marshal, Stephen D. Coan, gives 200 pages of details on fire patterns, but nothing on response times. Coan said in an interview that state law gives him no authority to rate departments, and it's up to communities to decide how much fire protection they desire.

In Washington, the response times are kept in a database by the US Fire Administration, which has been collecting them for 20 years without analyzing them. USFA officials said that they leave that to the states and fire departments.

Congress hasn't required every fire departments to report its fires. The system is voluntary. The law does require fire departments that receive federal grants to participate in the reporting system, but the Fire Administration said they're giving leeway of several years before enforcing that requirement.

At the nonprofit organization that set the response-time standard, the National Fire Protection Association, in Quincy, no studies have been done on how many departments meet that standard.

The insurance industry, which sets rates for homeowner's insurance premiums, doesn't take into account response times. The industry's rating company, ISO, collects a broad range of information about the fire department's capacity -- down to the type of fittings on the fire hoses -- but it doesn't use response time data. It does look at the number of fire stations, and at fire staffing, which affect response times. ISO does give a lower rating to areas that are more than 1,000 feet from a fire hydrant, and gives the lowest rating to areas more than five miles from a fire station, but otherwise every neighborhood in a community gets the same rating. ISO declined to make public the ISO scores for every community, although communities are free to publish their score. The newspaper obtained the scores from the state Division of Insurance, and those scores are being published today for the first time, in community report cards at Boston.com/fires.

And the news media play a role. News articles about fatal fires rarely say how long it took the fire department to arrive. In cases with slow responses by fire departments, news reports commonly refer to firefighters encountering a "fast-moving fire," as though a fire with a 10-minute head start could be anything else.


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